Abhisit ready to be replaced if party members want that

Abhisit ready to be replaced if party members want that
Thai Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiv.

THAILAND - Amid resounding criticism of his party's recent under-achievement, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said he would be ready to step down if his party members desire this.

The Democrats have been criticised recently for their inability to be a credible alternative to Pheu Thai Party, especially among the rural poor, and part of the blame was placed on Abhisit's leadership capabilities. Some critics have suggested the party needs a new leader to boost its popularity.

"However, any change in leadership will have to come through the party members. The leader can be changed if the Democrat Party members feel they need a change. I'm trying to do the best I can," Abhisit said.

He has led the party since 2005, but it has never won a general election under his leadership. In fact, the party's performance was dismal in the 2011 election compared to the one on 2009. After the disappointing results in 2011, Abhisit decided to step down but was re-elected as leader again.

Though his term will end this year, it is not likely that the party will be able to get together to elect new executives or a new leader as no political gatherings are allowed under martial law.

The party's failure in 2011 was largely due to its inability to reach the rural poor, especially in the Northeast, where Pheu Thai's populist policies drew significant support.

However, Abhisit defended the Democrats, saying: "I have to uphold the party's stance and principles that may be disliked by some and may create obstacles for us. But we have kept the party alive and people now view us as being different from others.

"Pheu Thai's most popular policies were the rice-pledging scheme and the increase in minimum wages. I refused to propose such policies, because I believe they would bring damage to the country."

As for his party's strategy for the next general election - scheduled by the military junta for October 2015 - he said the focus would be on areas where vote margins are small.

He said the Democrats can still win in the North, South and Central regions, but it would take time for his party to become popular in the Northeast, much like it would take time for Pheu Thai to gain popularity in the South.

He also admitted that it was difficult to prepare for elections now because circumstances were unclear while work on national reform is underway.

"Once the election is approaching, we will need to identify the issues on which the parties will compete, such as policy, people, work methods and communication. However, the system is changing and we'll have to wait for the dust to settle before we can start making preparations," Abhisit said.

This time though, the Democrat leader will not have his right-hand man, as party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban has taken up being a monk and declared he will no longer be involved in politics.

In fact, after the People's Democratic Reform Committee's rallies were wrapped up, Suthep publicly stated that he had permanently cut ties with the Democrats - news that some view as negative for the party.

It has been speculated that relations between Abhisit and Suthep became strained when the latter took to the streets - an act that demonstrated their difference in political stance.

However, Abhisit said he always knew that Suthep might one day decide to take the fight to the streets, so his act did not surprise or infuriate him.

"Suthep decided not to run for a seat in the Democrat committee in 2007, because he knew he would eventually have to take the fight to the streets," Abhisit said. "He had to make it clear to his followers that he was not representing the Democrat Party. Generally, we understand each other, though we have some minor disagreements. But that is normal."

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