Rumblings for leadership change in Thailand's Democrat Party

Former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan.
PHOTO: AFP

RECENT REPORTS that Surin Pitsuwan was preparing to contest for the Democrat Party's leadership have uncovered attempts for change within the party.

Surin, a former foreign minister who was previously secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), has denied the reports - but many political observers are still convinced elements in the country's oldest political party are pushing for a change of leadership.

Changes within a political party are not unusual. They are part of the democratic principle. Most parties often see changes at the top, except for parties that are "family run" or "owned" by wealthy politicians.

It is undeniable that the Democrat Party is now at a very low point in its 69-year history. Many people view the party as undemocratic, as several of its politicians took part in the street protests led by the People's Democratic Reform Committee against the Yingluck Shinawatra government that eventually led to the military coup in May 2014.

Many people view the party as inefficient, pointing to the government's unsatisfactory performance while the Democrats were in power.

Many of the party's former supporters now seem to admire General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who became prime minister after the coup he led as Army chief. Those people are calling for politicians, including the Democrats whom they once admired, to end their political activities.

This is a big problem for the Democrat Party in particular, as well as other political parties in general. People who once supported a political party in the democratic system are now backing a prime minister who did not gain power through election.

In fact, many Democrat figures are aware of the problem and they want to see changes for the better. Obviously, they know that if they allow things to continue the way they are, the party will be in a difficult position in the next general election.

Not only will they lose again, the Democrats are unlikely to be able to retain their number-two position, should a new political party with military connections be formed to contest the next election.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was a strong hope for the party in the past, but he is no longer. That is why there have been moves to seek changes at the party's helm, supposedly in a bid to regain its former image.

In addition to the news about Surin, there have been calls for another noted Democrat figure, Supachai Panitchpakdi, to contest the party's leadership. Supachai served as deputy prime minister and commerce minister in a Democrat-led government. He later became director of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and secretary general of the United Nations' Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). However, Supachai does not seem so keen to make a political comeback.

For the Democrats, changes at the top may be insufficient to restore their past greatness. The party needs to change its attitude. It should believe more in democracy and stop relying on special powers to solve crises.

Its members need to be aware that their electoral losses have not necessarily been caused by money politics, as they always believed. In the recent past, losses were mainly due to their own actions and standpoints that kept the party increasingly separate from the people.

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