Dems' fate sealed with Jurin at helm

Dems' fate sealed with Jurin at helm

A file photo from June 17, 2019, shows Democrat Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit, centre, giving a thumbs-up to then deputy leader, Prinn Panitchpakdi, far right. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
A file photo from June 17, 2019, shows Democrat Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit, centre, giving a thumbs-up to then deputy leader, Prinn Panitchpakdi, far right. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

With the sex scandal involving Prinn Panitchpakdi, formerly a rising star of the Democrats, coming to light, the country's oldest political party has plunged into an abyss.

Just one week before the scandal surfaced, the party celebrated its 76th anniversary in grandeur. Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit assured his fellow party members the Democrats would be thriving and grow as a main political institution of the country.

Just overnight, his political aspirations turned into a nightmare.

Mr Prinn resigned from his position as deputy party leader and head of the Democrats' operations for the Bangkok governor and city council election to fight the charges. As of Thursday, 15 women had filed complaints ranging from sexual harassment to rape against him. The number of alleged victims has stunned the public.

Now all eyes turn to Mr Jurin, the Democrat leader, deputy prime minister and commerce minister. His sluggish response to the allegations is unforgivable. It's believed former party leader Chuan Leekpai made him step up and say sorry, so late by then as to be almost meaningless.

He refused to resign as party leader, saying he needed to stay on to tackle the crisis, not pass the burden to someone else. What an unconvincing excuse!

In fact, as the leader of one of the country's main political organisations and also a government coalition party, Mr Jurin should have done better. Society expected a quick and effective response, as Mr Prinn is known to be his close aide.

Almost half the complaints show that alleged sexual misconduct took place during Mr Prinn's tenure as deputy leader of the party.

Mr Jurin, who took over the party's leadership in 2019, brought Mr Prinn into the party, apparently disregarding his scandalous past.

The younger Democrat, with a privileged family background, was accused of raping two Thai women while in London some 20 years ago. The cases are suspended, but not over.

With Mr Jurin's support, Mr Prinn quickly climbed up the party hierarchy. In a short time, he was named deputy party leader as well as head of the party's economic team, replacing ex-finance minister Korn Chatikavanich. Some believe that if it wasn't for this scandal, Mr Prinn had the potential to become a cabinet minister.

Such scenarios now belong to the past.

Things went from bad to worse when a key Democrat member, in a bid to protect Mr Jurin from being grilled by her colleagues, sent out text messages through a party Line chat which revealed quite a few sex scandals are going on in the party.

The messages affirm the party has low ethical standards when it comes to sexual matters. They speak volumes about conflicts within the party under Mr Jurin. The inadvertent revelations are a shock and even though the party has kept a lid on them, public doubt remains.

During Mr Jurin's leadership, the party has experienced a deep divide like never before. Several accuse him of favouritism.

Whether the accusation is true, some prominent figures have already left. Apart from Mr Korn, who formed his own party, other heavyweights who have resigned from the party are Piraphan Salirathavibhaga, and Nipit Intarasombat. Young ones with potential like Parit Watcharasindhu have also left.

The Prinn effect has dealt a heavy blow to the party, dashing all its hopes of making a big comeback from the 2019 election drubbing where the party lost much of its public support, winning only 52 seats compared to the 160 it bagged in the previous poll. The next election will be even tougher with rivals like the Palang Pracharath and Bhumjaithai parties.

The Democrats have to admit, however, that they have no one to blame but themselves.

Even though the party was able to take over key ministries like agriculture and commerce, the performance of its ministers is seen as mediocre with a plethora of problems.

There was the African Swine Flu saga in which doubts arose about a disease cover-up that caused heavy damage to the pig-raising industry; the rubber glove debacle, and increases in the cost of living, which have hit the public hard. The party has been overshadowed by the PPRP and BJT.

Another saga that has hurt the party is its stance toward dictatorship. Over past years, the Democrat Party tried to promote itself as a pro-democracy party which now looks like mere empty rhetoric, if not hypocrisy.

While it tried to assure the public that it would not kowtow to Gen Prayut and the military regime, the party nonetheless joined it in the coalition, showing its true colours.

The Democrats showed little reluctance in breaking their campaign promises regarding charter amendments, which have dragged on without significant changes.

Indeed, it would be a laughing matter if the party chooses a pro-democracy jacket for the next polls.

Now the Democrats have to hold their breath with regard to the Bangkok governor and city council elections which take place in a matter of weeks.

Before the political tsunami triggered by the Prinn scandal, opinion polls were running in Democrat candidate Suchatvee Suwansawat's favour.

Needless to say, the scandal will exact a high cost on the party and its candidate.

With all these problems, there are many issues for party members to clear up during their general meeting today. Mr Jurin is also likely to get a hard time.

What the party needs now is to restore its honour and reputation, an impossible task as long as Mr Jurin is at the helm.

One option as a short-term survival strategy is for a drastic change, with many placing their hope in a senior figure like Mr Chuan, who has performed well in the role of House Speaker. Without any change, the party is at risk of going down the drain.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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