Democrat Party

Upcoming FCCT panel to feature Thai political heavyweights - if the junta allows it...

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 24, 2015 The Foreign Correspondent's Club of Thailand (FCCT) has just announced this upcoming panel discussion in March.

The Future of Politics in Thailand

7pm, Wednesday March 11, 2015

Non-members: 350 Baht entry; Members: Free entry

What kind if future does the military's reform programme promise for Thailand? And will there be space for existing political parties in this new future?

For the first time since the coup, the FCCT is pleased to host a high-level debate, by inviting some of the country's most experienced politicians to the club.

Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council and former deputy leader, Democrat Party

Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party

Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democrat Party

Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party

This really looks interesting because this indeed an illustrious high-profile panel. A couple of notes about the panelists:

Alongkorn Polabutr was considered by many as the prospect to reform and revive the ailing "Democrat" Party, as he was the most vocal advocate calling on his fellow party members to stop blaming vote-buying for the streak of election losses. However, in late 2013 - during the anti-Yingluck government protests and weeks away from snap-elections - he was practically demoted from his position as deputy leader of the "Democrat" Party. This likely contributed to his departure from the party last November but also, much to the dismay of many progressive supporters, to his joining the junta-installed and fully-appointed National Reform Council. Being a NRC member alone makes him a high-profile panelist.

Chaturon Chaiseng is regarded as stalwart from the era of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as he filled many positions in his cabinet: Prime Minister's Office Minister (2001–02), Justice Minister (2002), Deputy Prime Minister (2002–05), and Minister of Education (2005–06). After Thaksin's government was toppled by the 2006 military coup, his Thai Rak Thai Party was subsequently disbanded and most of its members, including Chaturon, banned from politics for five years. Chaturon returned to the Yingluck government in mid-2013 as Education Minister, but was putsched again in May 2014. He was one of the few to defy the junta's mass summons and appeared at the FCCT to give a press conference, only for the military to barge in, arrest him on the spot and bring him in front of a military court. He's currently out on bail and returns to the very same spot at the FCCT next month.

Kasit Piromya. It is often said that the diplomatic sensibilities of the former ambassador to Germany and Japan (especially by this author) are more akin to a wrecking ball. Especially during his tenure as Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (2009-11), he seemed to be solely focused on the fugitive, self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin. In any case, if circumstances are right, he can be highly entertaining to watch.

Phongthep Thepkanjana is another ex-cabinet member of Thaksin Shinawatra (Minister of Justice, Minister of Energy, Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office - see a pattern?) and was Chaturon's predecessor as Education Minister in Yingluck's cabinet.

In any case, it should also be interesting to see, considering at least 50 per cent of the panel, if the Thai military will actually allow the event to take place or at least send a representative with in a humvee to "defend" the government's point of view.

Thai government, Election Commission clash over catch-up poll dates

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 12, 2014

The outcome of the February 2 general election in Thailand remains in legal limbo as the Election Commission (EC) has announced the catch-up dates for the constituencies where voting was disrupted by anti-government and anti-election protesters:

The Election Commission is to hold second chance advance voting in 83 constituencies on April 20, followed by general election re-runs at 10,284 polling stations on April 27. (...)

[Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn] explained that the new dates were set for April because the meeting had concluded that voting disruption was likely to escalate during the Senate elections, the first day of candidacy registration for which is scheduled on March 4. Voting for senators is set to begin on March 30.

Regarding the 28 southern constituencies which are still without candidates for the general election, Mr Somchai said the EC wants the caretaker government to issue a royal decree to fix a new election date for the 28 constituencies. The EC will write a formal request to be submitted to officials tomorrow, he added.

"General election re-runs set for April", Bangkok Post, February 11, 2014

Advance voting on January 26 saw widespread blockades in Bangkok and many parts in the South, preventing 2 million people from voting. On election day 10,284 polling stations in 18 provinces (again mostly in the South and in Bangkok) were forced to shut down or didn't open at all due to disruptions by anti-government protesters. Official figures show that over 20.5 million people did cast their ballot, a low turnout of 47.2 per cent.

The Election Commission already announced before the polling stations opened (at least those that could) that there would be no official results on that day, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of issues unresolved. Twenty-eight districts in the South are without any candidates - they were prevented from registering - meaning the mandatory quorum of 95 per cent to form parliament cannot be fulfilled.

Since the election, the EC and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have clashed on what should happen next and when the catch-up polls can be held in the aforementioned districts. In essence, the government argues that the EC has to hold by-elections as soon as possible and has to ensure that it they go smoothly, since that is its duty. On the other hand the EC is reluctant to hold them, citing legal reasons but also safety concerns as many election officials in the South are still being hindered. It should be noted that the Election Commission also displayed some unwillingness to go through with the February 2 elections.

EC officials justified the late catch-up election date with the hope that the political tensions may have calmed down by then, as anti-government protesters are still rallying in central parts of Bangkok, albeit with almost non-existent attendance at their rally stages during the day.

In the interim, elected senators will have completed their term on March 1 and new ones have to be elected on the March 30. That is eight days after the ongoing state of emergency for Bangkok and some surrounding areas is scheduled to be lifted (March 22) - but it would still cover the senate candidate registry on March 4, which is likely to be disrupted by anti-election mobs, as feared by the EC. Should the protests prolong until the scheduled April election dates, the catch-up polls could still be targeted.

As mentioned, 28 districts in the south were not even able to file candidates for the February 2 elections due to blockades in late December and the EC did not extend the registration period. Instead, the commission still proposes that the caretaker government should issue a new royal decree in order to start the entire election process for the affected constituencies. The government, however, has rejected that idea in the past and according to a legal expert of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it wouldn't be legally possible since the royal decree process dictates that after the dissolution of parliament the subsequent election day "must be the same throughout the Kingdom" (see Article 108 of the Constitution). Also, a second royal decree could void the original parliament dissolution decree and thus render the February 2 elections nullified and meaningless.

In a related development, that is exactly what the opposition Democrat Party - which boycotted these elections - is trying to achieve as they have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the whole election since it wasn't held in one day and it would violate Article 68 of the Constitution with the clear intention to get the interim prime minister Yingluck and the ruling Pheu Thai Party banned. But...

Legally, it is difficult to understand this argument. The election could not be held on one day largely because of the actions of a protest movement to which the Democrat party gives thinly-disguised support.

The use of section 68 is even more baffling. This section outlaws any actions that could threaten the existing democratic system, with the King as head of state. The Democrat argument appears to be that in calling the election at a time of turmoil, and against the advice of the Election Commission, the government put the political system in jeopardy.

"The constitution gives a clear and flexible mechanism to re-run the election where it has been obstructed," says lawyer Verapat Pariyawong. "It is ironic that the Democrats are citing section 68, as this really ought to be used to deal with the disruptions of the protesters rather than the actions of the government. There are no legal grounds I can see for annulling the election."

"No grand bargain amid Thailand political crisis", by Jonathan Head, BBC News, February 10, 2014

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to decide whether or not to accept the petition today (Wednesday). UPDATE: The court rejected.

So the February 2 election remains in limbo for at least another two-and-a-half months, while the caretaker government is facing more and more problems, most recently with rice farmers waiting to be paid subsidies and a related anti-corruption investigation and another one for proposed constitutional amendments. Thailand's political crisis continues with no clear answers on where it will go and how it will all end.

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?

Opinion: Thai opposition boycott a slap in the face to voters

Orginally published at Siam Voices on December 22, 2013 Thailand's opposition Democrat Party is to boycott the February 2 elections, prolonging the current political crisis. But this move will hurt the country's oldest political party in the long-run, writes Saksith Saiyasombut

When Sukhumband Paribatra was reelected as Governor of Bangkok in March this year he did it with a record number of over 1.25m votes, maintaining the Democrat Party's stranglehold on Thailand's capital. However, the rival Pheu Thai Party was able to make ground, especially in the city's outskirts. In a city of roughly 12 million people, only 5 million are registered in Bangkok, while 4.2 million of them were eligible to vote. That means only about a third decided on the future of the other two-thirds. I commented back then that it was important for the Democrat Party to look beyond the city borders to the rest of the country since the next general election would likely be their "very last chance" to make a nationwide impact at the polls.

On Saturday, they slammed the door on that chance.

With the reportedly "unanimous" decision not to file any MP candidates and effectively boycott the February 2 general election, the Democrat Party of Thailand, somewhat ironically, has turned its back on democratic discourse in Thailand. Instead, it has decided to heed the the vague but shrill calls of the anti-government protesters for "reform before elections" in the form of the appointed "People's Assembly", proposed by protest leader and former fellow senior party figure Suthep Thuagsuban and his motley crew of like-minded ultra-conservatives.

Granted, it was always going to be an uphill battle for the Democrat Party. It hasn't won an election in two decades and would be unlikely to sway voters in less than two months. It is also undeniable that Thailand needs political (and social) reform on several fronts and the upcoming election won't solve all these problems. But by siding with the protesters and endorsing their demands, the Democrats have delivered a slap to the face of not only to the 47m eligible voters, but also the 11.5m people that voted for them in the last general elections 2011.

While Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party won that election easily, there were surely still a lot of people willing to give then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva a second chance to initiate reforms he failed to put in place while in power from 2008-20011 and are bemoaning now to be missing today, such as the proposals by Suthep for police reform (despite being deputy-PM in charge of national security under Abhisit back then) or the sudden embrace for decentralization in form of election of all provincial governors (also not mentioned during the Abhisit premiership).

On Saturday, Democrat Party leader Abhisit lamented "the loss of trust in Thailand's political system, and respect for political parties and elections." He didn't, however, touch on the failure of the Democrat Party in the past decade to effectively adapt to the politics and policies of Thaksin Shinawatra's government(s) and the changing political landscape. The need for reform of the Democrat Party into a healthy, rational political opposition is evident. However, in the party meetings this past week, with the re-election of Abhisit and Alongkorn Ponlaboot - the party's most outspoken proponent for reform - effectively sidelined, it showed that the party is unwilling to change itself for now. The boycott decision also shows that it doesn't even acknowledge that it could have been part of the solution, but instead is becoming part of the problem. The Democrats did not "play the ball back" to caretaker-Prime Minister Yingluck, as Abhisit said. They took the ball and simply popped it.

Whatever their gambit is (most likely creating a political gridlock in order to provoke a military or "judicial" coup), it will hurt the Democrat Party in the long-run. A 2006-style impasse is not possible due to amendments in the election rules that doesn't require 20 per cent of the vote for a MP candidate in the third by-election round and also due to the fact that, unlike over seven years ago, other opposition parties have not decided on a boycott yet.

Last week, the new secretary-general Juti Krairiksh said that entering the elections would “kill” and a boycott “cripple” the party respectively. Thailand's Democrat Party chose this weekend to cripple itself and it is doubtful whether or not it can recover in its current form.

'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.")