Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit

Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit before the swearing-in ceremony of the new Thai cabinet in Bangkok in 2019. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

The Grim Future of the Democrat Party in Thailand’s Upper South

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As Thailand readies itself for the coming elections, its oldest political party, the Democrat Party, faces an uphill battle in even coming close to regaining its former lustre.

Signs in Thailand are pointing towards an early election, with the durability of Prayut Chan-ocha’s government being increasingly questioned. Tweaks are being made to voting rules, and major political parties are revamping their internal organisational structures to gear up for the elections. The looming election brings up an intriguing question: Can the Democrat Party — Thailand’s oldest party — bounce back after having gone through a change in leadership following its disastrous defeat in the 2019 general election?

The Democrat Party suffered major losses in its traditional strongholds in the highly polarised 2019 election. The party shockingly did not gain any seat in Bangkok and failed to defend its votes in Southern provinces. In 11 provinces of Upper Southern Thailand, the Democrats only secured 21 out of 39 seats. This marks a stark contrast with previous elections in the last three decades, such as the 2011 election which saw the Democrats winning 41 out of 42 constituencies in the Upper South. The downfall — best explained by the Democrat’s absence of a clear stance on whether to support the continued grip on power of members of the 2014-2019 military junta — subsequently led to the resignation of the party leader and former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The current Democrat leader, Jurin Laksanawisit, is a native of Thailand’s Upper South which theoretically increases his chances of winning back the hearts and minds of Southerners. Besides, Jurin is not a new face in Thai politics. He worked in key ministerial positions under the premierships of Chuan Leekpai and Abhisit Vejjajiva, and had been a deputy leader of the Democrat Party since 2003. As a member of the ruling coalition, Jurin now serves as a Deputy Prime Minister and Commerce Minister.

A recent Bangkok-focused poll finds Jurin as the leading candidate to become the next Prime Minister. Out of the total 12,350 respondents, about 51 per cent believe that Jurin can address Thailand’s pressing economic challenges and improve people’s well-being. Moreover, a majority says that Jurin is well-equipped with experience (59.53 per cent), knowledge and dedication to push for successful policies (63.58 per cent), and the ability to work and reconcile with all sides (55.51 per cent).

However, another Southern-focused survey finds that 48.14 per cent of eligible voters in Thailand’s Upper South and Deep South are reluctant to pick the Democrats in the next election. This finding matches with the reality on the ground, especially in the Upper South. In this region, the Democrats struggle to compete with the military-backed Phalang Pracharat Party (PPRP) and the Bhumjaithai Party (BJTP), the two leading parties in the governing coalition. The newly formed Kla Party under the leadership of former leading Democrat member Korn Chatikavanij is also emerging as a promising challenger.

Earlier this year, the Democrats lost a seat in the by-election in Constituency 3 of the Upper Southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat to the PPRP. While the PPRP did not win by a landslide, this was a humiliating loss for Democrats because the constituency in question had long been dominated by the Senpong family, with its close ties to the party.

Even in Jurin’s home province of Phang Nga, the Democrat Party is becoming increasingly overshadowed by the BJTP. BJTP snatched two local politicians who have a very strong support base, introducing them as the party’s MP candidates for Phang Nga’s Constituencies 1 and 2. It is worth noting that Constituency 1 candidate Auttapon Traisri is an advisor to Tharatip Thongjerm who, out of nowhere, toppled the old champion Bamroong Piyanamvanich and became the Chief Executive of Phang Nga’s Provincial Administrative Organisation last year. The defeated champion is said to be a close ally of Jurin.

The Democrats’ progressive decline in Thailand’s Upper South can be explained by a combination of factors. They include Jurin’s uncharismatic character, the party’s perceived lack of achievement over the past years as a member of the government, ambiguous party direction, and intra-party divisions.

Further adding to the Democrats’ misfortunes, the party has recently lost seats in Chumphon province’s Constituency 1 and Songkhla province’s Constituency 6 due to the Constitutional Court’s ruling to disqualify three Democrat MPs who were involved in the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) 2014 protests against the Yingluck Shinawatra government. The resulting by-elections — scheduled to be held in mid-January next year — will be fierce. The battle in Chumphon will be particularly heated, with well-equipped contestants from the Democrat Party, PPRP, BJTP, and Kla Party.

The Democrats’ progressive decline in Thailand’s Upper South can be explained by a combination of factors. They include Jurin’s uncharismatic character, the party’s perceived lack of achievement over the past years as a member of the government, ambiguous party direction, and intra-party divisions which result in the loss of many prominent members to rival parties.

Meanwhile, rival parties have played their cards right. The pandemic has put serious financial pressure on citizens in Upper Southern Thailand, many of whom depend on tourism. The PPRP’s “state welfare card”, which grants money and benefits to low-income individuals, has served as a popular tool to attract votes. BJTP, armed with Southern-born Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, has the advantage to reach out to tourism businesses. Over the last few months, Phiphat has regularly travelled to tourist hotspots in the region to promote both the revival of tourism and his party. The Kla Party, on the other hand, has made a bold step to support Phuket Province’s push for more administrative autonomy which has long been a popular sentiment among the island’s residents.

These developments highlight that the Democrat hegemony in Upper Southern Thailand — the norm since Chuan Leekpai’s ascent to premiership three decades ago — is crumbling. The party’s downfall in its long-time stronghold, coupled with growing electoral competition, carries big implications for the formation of future governments in Bangkok. The Democrats may be excluded from, or figure only as a minor member of, any future PPRP/BJTP-dominated coalition. Unless the Democrat Party comes up with revolutionary reforms and finds other political parties shooting themselves in the foot, Thailand’s oldest and arguably the most prestigious political party will inevitably succumb to extinction.

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