Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva quit the Democrat Party on Saturday during a tumultuous meeting in which veteran MP Chalermchai Sri-on was chosen as its new leader after running unopposed.
Mr Abhisit, who led the party from 2005 to 2019, made his surprise announcement after being nominated by Democrat patriarch Chuan Leekpai for the leadership.
He declined to comment on reports that his exit could be linked to the possibility that under a new leader, the party might move from the opposition benches to join the Pheu Thai-led government coalition.
Two hundred and sixty members turned out for the general assembly of the country’s oldest political party to select its ninth leader, at the Miracle Grand Convention Hotel in Lak Si district of Bangkok. Under party rules, at least 250 of 346 party representatives nationwide must be in attendance.
The party had failed in two attempts in July and August to pick a new head to succeed Jurin Laksanawisit due to a lack of quorum. Mr Jurin had stepped down to take responsibility for the party’s poor showing in the May general election, when its seat total was halved from 2019.
Mr Jurin was among four former party leaders at Saturday’s meeting, alongside Mr Chuan, 85, Banyat Bantadtan and Mr Abhisit. Several other Democrats were seen holding signs showing support for Mr Chalermchai, whose candidacy had been put forward by a group of 21 of the party’s 25 members of Parliament.
After discussions about the party’s next executive committee, Mr Chuan proposed Mr Abhisit for the leadership.
“Mr Abhisit is not inferior to any political party leader in Thailand at the moment, and I believe Mr Abhisit will lead the party towards democracy,” said Mr Chuan.
However, Mr Abhisit responded by announcing his refusal and his decision to leave the party altogether.
“I wish to withdraw myself as a candidate and resign from the Democrat Party,” he said. “There is no other party, and there will be no other party for me.
“If you were to cut me, I would bleed blue. I will remain loyal to this party for the rest of my days, and I am hopeful that the next group of administrators will be successful in their stated objectives.”
His statement was met with applause as he exited the hall. (Story continues below)
Chalermchai Sri-on speaks to reporters following his election as the new Democrat Party leader on Saturday. (Photo: Nutthawat Wichieanbut)
Addressing the press while leaving the hotel, Mr Abhisit said, “I have said all I want to say and there is nothing left on my mind.”
Asked about his future role in politics, the Oxford-educated Democrat said he had not yet given it any thought.
He declined to comment on whether he had intended to resign before discussing the matter with Mr Chalermchai during the meeting.
The new leader, he told reporters, could elaborate on their discussions and on whether the party might be considering joining the government side.
Mr Abhisit, 59, served as prime minister from 2008-11. He led the Democrats from 2005 until he resigned following the party’s weak performance in the 2019 election.
Mr Chalermchai faced no opposition after the meeting decided not to waive a rule requiring a candidate to have been with the party for at least five years before seeking the leadership. That eliminated Watanya “Madam Dear” Bunnag, 39, the only other contender, who had vowed to bring new ideas to the party.
Ms Watanya told reporters afterward that she would need to assess whether the new Democrat leader and executive committee aligned with her political ideology before making a decision on her future with the party.
After Mr Chalermchai received 88.5% of the votes cast to secure the top job, acting deputy leader Sathit Pitutecha also resigned from the Democrats and said he would not seek membership in another party.
“Mr Chalermchai had clearly stated that he would permanently withdraw from politics if the Democrats failed to secure at least 50 MP seats (in the general election),” said Mr Sathit. “Today, he’s vying for the position of party leader. The person who will lead the party must keep his word.”
In an interview, Mr Sathit said the Democrat Party had abandoned its ideology when some of its MPs voted for Pheu Thai candidate Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.
“I’m here to make the Democrat Party move forward,” Mr Chalermchai told reporters after his election. “Still, nobody can predict the future of the party.”
He declined to respond to his earlier statement that he would quit politics after failing to win 50 seats.
“I’m not denying it but you’ll have to ask other Democrat MPs and executives for an explanation,” he said.
Mr Chalermchai, 58, is a native of Prachuap Khiri Khan. A graduate in Law from Ramkhamhaeng University, he also holds a master’s degree in Art (Policy and Planning) from Krirk University.
He was first elected to the House as an MP for Prachuap Khiri Khan in 2001. He served as Minister of Labour in the Democrat-led government of Mr Abhisit in 2010, and as Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives from 2019-23 in the Prayut Chan-o-cha government.
“If you were to cut me, I would bleed blue. I will remain loyal to this party for the rest of my days,” former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva tells the Democrat faithful at Saturday’s meeting. (Photo: Democrat Party Facebook)