'It will hurt either way': Thai opposition still undecided on elections

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 18, 2013 In Southeast Asian Buddhist mythology, the goddess that is known in Thailand as Phra Mae Thorani (พระแม่ธรณี) was called upon by the Bodhisattva to help him fend off the demon Māra, who tried to distract him from seeking enlightenment. According to the myth, Thorani then twisted her very long hair and out came an enormous torrent of water that washed away Māra and his army, clearing the way for the Bodhisattva to reach enlightenment and to become the Buddha.

Thorani's image graces the seal of the opposition Democrat Party, which is currently at a crucial junction. The party is torn between entering the snap-elections on February 2, 2014 or boycotting them. The latter would show full support for the anti-government protesters who have paralyzed the country's politics since early November and have increased the pressure on caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to step down, while openly calling for the suspension of electoral democracy in order to "reform" Thailand. The protesters are led by former deputy prime minister and veteran Democrat Party bruiser - and now self-styled "people's champion" - Suthep Thuagsuban, joined by many other recently resigned party executives, including the former finance minister Korn Chatikavananij.

The tensions have receded for now, though protesters - albeit in significantly lower numbers - are still roaming around Democracy Monument and Government House. Over the weekend, both the protesters and the government held public and private forums in order to win public support for either the "reform first" drive by the protesters or the February 2 elections set by the caretaker government.

The lines between the protest movement - calling themselves (somewhat ironically) the "People’s Democratic Reform Committee" (PDRC)* - and the Democrat Party are (intentionally) blurry, not only because the mobilization of the rallies had been rehearsed long ago, but also because of the regular involvement of Democrat Party figures. The party itself was meandering in recent weeks until its MPs decided to resign from parliament earlier this month, effectively forcing Prime Minister Yingluck to dissolve parliament and call for new elections - something that the protesters are uncompromisingly rejecting and instead lobbying (especially the military) for their undemocratic, appointed "People's Assembly".

Since Monday, the Democrat Party has been in meetings to determine what to do next as election day approaches. Apart from extending the numbers of executives to 35, the party also re-elected Abhisit Vejjajiva as its party leader.

One major casualty of the party meeting was Alongkorn Ponlaboot, until Tuesday deputy party leader before he was defeated by Satit Pitudecha by 63 to 30 per cent. An outspoken proponent for reform of the party, Alongkorn regularly insisted that the Democrats should stop blaming their electoral losses on "vote-buying, electoral fraud or populism" and instead "come up with better strategies" in order to eventually beat the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Alongkorn was also notably absent from the party's meeting that resulted in the MPs' mass resignation. After the vote, he simply tweeted "I lost" and asked the party in a following tweet to "continue to reform," since this is "the only way to regain trust in the Democrat Party".

This affirmation of Abhisit and the demotion of Alongkorn shows that Thailand's main opposition party is unwilling to make big changes, let alone reform itself, in order to halt the ongoing streak of elections defeats since 1992. And it has also (as of writing) deferred the decision whether or not to run in the February 2 elections, facing the dilemma of being beaten at the polls again by Pheu Thai - but then being shunned by the protesters - or losing (even more) political credit with a boycott. A repeat of the 2006 snap-elections - when the Democrat Party along with other opposition parties staged a boycott that created a political deadlock and a subsequent vacuum that led to the military coup that ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - is not possible thanks to an amendment that does away with the 20 per cent requirement of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election (more background on that at Bangkok Pundit). Also, all other parties have not yet publicly considered an election boycott. It is reported that the newly-elected executive board will decide on the question this Saturday.

According to reports, the party is almost evenly split on the election question. Newly elected secretary-general Juti Krairiksh was quoted as saying that entering the contest would "kill" and a boycott "cripple" the party respectively ("ส่งก็ตายไม่ส่งก็พิการ"), to which Abhisit responded that "it will hurt either way" ("มองว่าเจ็บทุกทาง"), adding...

"(...) หากทำให้ชาติไปสู่สิ่งที่ดีกว่าเราก็ต้องยอม เพราะประเทศสำคัญกว่าพรรค (...) ไม่ส่งก็เสียระบบหรือไม่ สิ่งสำคัญที่สุดคือการปฏิรูปประเทศโดยรักษาประชาธิปไตยไว้ แม้จะเป็นโจทย์ยาก (...)"

"(...) if it makes the country better than us, we have to accept that because the country is more important than the party (...). Whether or not a boycott would damage the [democratic] system, the important thing is reform [before elections?] while maintaining democracy, no matter how problematic (...)"

"ปชป.ชี้ขาด 21 ธ.ค.ส่งเลือกตั้ง 'มาร์ค'หนักใจส่ง-ไม่ส่งก็เจ็บ", Thai Rath Online, December 17, 2013 (translation by me)

Until the registration of MP candidates opens next week, Thailand's oldest existing opposition party has to decide whether it wants to be an enabler or an instigator: either the Democrat Party takes part in the February 2 elections, most likely lose against Pheu Thai (hopefully as graceful as possible), and maintain the shaky status quo or stage a boycott and completely lose any political legitimacy as a 'hilariously misnamed' husk of a party - and also comply with the PRDC's anti-democratic stance and protest leader Suthep's rabble-rousing and nightly delusions of grandeur, who has just announced yet another mass protest for Sunday.

Unlike the goddess Thorani, the Democrat Party did not manage to wash away the distractions in order to reform itself as a healthy democratic opposition. To adapt the motto in the party's logo - the Pali proverb "truth is indeed the undying word" ("สจฺจํ เว อมตา วาจา") - it will have to face the consequences of its actions - no matter how much it will hurt.

*Sidenote: Interestingly, the PDRC's English 'translation' doesn't fully reflect the original Thai name: "People's Committee for the Change Thailand's to Democracy with the King as Head of State" (Thai abbreviation: "กปปส.")