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Sad decline of the Democrat Party

What is happening to Thailand's oldest party, the Democrat Party, under the leadership of Jurin Laksanawisit?

The party is suffering from internal bleeding, while its members keep jumping ship, endlessly, as if the ship is letting in water. The latest to defect, reportedly to the Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, is party faithful Dr Trairong Suwankiri, the former deputy prime minister and a former MP of Songkhla.

In his resignation letter to the party, he wrote: “I would like to breathe freely … to wear the blue shirt for the last time.”

Many have left as well as Dr Trairong since Mr Jurin took the helm of the party three years ago after his predecessor, Abhisit Vejjajiva, stepped down to honour his promise to quit the Democrat Party failed to win more than 100 House seats at the election of 2019.

The party suffered a humiliating defeat at the election, winning fewer than 40 constituency seats, including 22 in its southern stronghold, less than half of what it gained in 2011. It did not win a single seat in Bangkok — once its political base.

Among those who left the party are Korn Chatikavinij, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, Akanat Prompan, Thavorn Senniam, Thawil Praisont, Vittaya Kaewparadai, Nipit Intharasombat, Kobsak Sabhavasu, Chumphol Julasai. Even fresh faces like Parit Vejjajiva, representing the party’s young and promising politicians, quit to join the progressive Move Forward Party. The list goes on.

So, Dr Trairong is just the latest in a long list. He will not be the last as the next general election is expected in May; provided, of course, that the House is not dissolved before the end of the government’s term in the office.

Other parties such as the Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai parties are also facing defections to seek “greener pastures” elsewhere. But their defection rate pales in comparison to that of the Democrat Party.

During the 76 years since its founding in 1946, the Democrat Party has gone through its share of ups and downs, which is to be expected. In 1976, for instance, the party was at its peak when it won the election, capturing 114 House seats out of a total of 279 nationwide, including a clean landslide in Bangkok, taking all the 29 seats.

The party formed a coalition government with Chart Thai, Thamma Sangkhom and Sangkhom Chartniyom with MR Seni Pramoj as prime minster. The government was short-lived, however, when the military staged a coup to oust the government following a day of bloodletting at Thammasat University, known as the “October 6” bloody incident.

An election three years afterwards saw the party plunge to a new low. It managed to win only 33 house seats nationwide, including only one seat in Bangkok by the party’s leader, Col Thanat Khoman.

The same election saw a rising star, Samak Sundaravej, who quit the Democrat Party to form his own Prachakorn Thai Party which captured 29 out of 32 seats in Bangkok.

The party, however, bounced back under the leadership of Bhichai Rattakul, in which the party won more House seats in the 1983 and 1986 elections respectively, right before its popularity plunged again. In 1987, the party was hit by mass defections from the so-called “January 10” group, led by Veera Musikapong and Chalermphan Srivikorn.

Bhichai’s era ended with the emergence of Chuan Leekpai as party leader in 1992. The first election under Mr Chuan’s leadership was not a success, with the party winning only 44 out of 360 House seats. After the Black May incident in 1992, a new election was held and the Democrats came first and won the right to form a coalition, with Mr Chuan as the prime minister.

After that the party was on a steady rise until the election in 2001 when a new political star, Thaksin Shinawatra, led his Thai Rak Thai Party to victory and a landslide win four years later. The rest is history.

From Mr Chuan to his successor, Mr Abhisit, the Democrat Party has not been able to beat Mr Thaksin’s parties, from Thai Rak Thai to its two incarnations, People’s Power, and now Pheu Thai.

The party’s popularity and credibility has been on a steady decline as manifested in the 2019 election which saw the party come fourth after Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharath and the newcomer, Future Forward, later dissolved by the Constitutional Court. Internal conflict and resentment with the new leadership led by Mr Jurin eventually led to numerous defections.

The sexual harassment scandal implicating one of its deputy leaders, Prinn Panitchpakdi, in April, appears to have added insult to injury. Calls were made for the party’s leadership to show responsibility. But only Vittaya Kaewparadai, a deputy leader, resigned in protest.

If a faithful long-time member like Dr Trairong, who has been with the party for about 36 years, can jump ship, there must be something wrong with the party, the party’s leadership, or both.

As the situation stands now, the party has yet to hit rock bottom. It appears that not even Mr Chuan, the party’s mentor and advisory chair, can reverse the situation.

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

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