The Democrats at the crossroads _ again

The Democrats at the crossroads _ again

ANALYSIS: The calls for political reform have rocked the opposition, forcing it to do some serious soul-searching. Reporters Nattaya Chetchotiros and Manop Thip-Osod examine the hard decisions the party must make beyond its boycott of the Feb 2 general election

The battle cry and chants for political reform by anti-Thaksin Shinawatra protesters this past month has clearly taken its toll on the Democrats, the country's oldest political party.

The rising chorus leading up to yesterday's largest rally to date clearly forced the party to bow to its base support and potential voters to boycott the general election scheduled for Feb 2.

Also overshadowed was the party's long-awaited structural reform aimed at enhancing its chances at future polls and becoming a viable alternative to the ruling Pheu Thai Party.

On Saturday, the party expanded its executive board from 19 to 35 and introduced a new body in its structure aimed at giving the party leader a greater say in selecting "more capable and qualified" people into the ranks.

While Democrats who had a hand in shaping the restructuring are optimistic that the changes would help the party perform better, doubts remain as to whether its leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, is the right man to lead the changes.

What is also clear is that the Democrats will not have time to implement their internal reforms in the near future.

After eight years at the helm and one election defeat, Mr Abhisit is seen as being out of touch with large segments of the rural populace.

Nakharin Mektrairat, a political scientist from Thammasat University, adds that his image is too bruised after being indicted for the deaths related to the 2010 crackdown on red-shirt demonstrators. Mr Abhisit's past political baggage with the red shirts vastly limits his political position.

The main opposition party needs a more flexible leader who is able to engage more positively with other political players and help ease the country's entrenched political conflicts," Mr Nakharin said.

"I believe Surin Pitsuwan, Korn Chatikavanij or Apirak Kosayodhin are as qualified to lead the party," he said.

The party stuck with Mr Abhisit because he still wanted the top job and because he continued to have backing from the senior party leadership, a senior Democrat said.

The party's top-ranked leadership also felt it was not fair to abandon him because of the sacrifices he had made as prime minister during the red-shirt protests of 2010 and because of subsequent criticisms lodged against him. He also continues to shine in Parliament as a debater, the senior Democrat added.

Given these factors, other potential contenders were not prepared to throw their hat into the ring. Potential candidates also wanted to avoid the no-win situation of heading the party into a boycott of the polls.

The senior Democrat admitted that the party needs not only structural reforms and new strategies, but a new leadership with new appeal. "Abhisit cannot stay," he said.

The surge in political awareness among anti-Thaksin protesters means that instead of supporting the party in election, they are urging the opposite _ calling on the Democrats to not run in the polls.

"This shows a lack of confidence in the electoral process but it also means the party will not have time to test its structural reforms," the senior Democrat said.

The decision to boycott the polls means the Democrats must use this period and put greater effort at implementing internal reform.

"We must re-energise, replenish and reform more so no than before but this takes time. We must develop policies that are attractive, convincing and sustainable. Populist policies are not the way," the Democrat member said.

Even if elections are held on Feb 2 and result in yet another Pheu Thai victory, some Democrats believe that public sentiment may still favour the party. The failure of Pheu Thai's key populist policies, such as the rice-pledging scheme, will adversely affect the country and economy.

The Democrats still need to develop strategies to attract the dissatisfied, the senior Democrat added. The party needs to develop a message to Pheu Thai and red shirts but it doesn't have to convince everybody.

"We don't need to convince all of the 15 million [who voted for Pheu Thai in the last election], we just need to convince 3 million," he said, referring to the difference in total votes for Pheu Thai and the Democrats in 2011.

The challenge of forging a campaign policy that captures voters' hearts falls on the shoulders of the hearts of former deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij.

Mr Korn, who decided not to take up a seat in the new party line-up, wants to devote his time as head of the party's policy unit.

"We aim to produce not just campaign policies. We would like our policy unit to be linked with networks of experts and specialists," Mr Korn said.

"We plan to have regular meetings with people in their communities. We want to invite ideas from people outside the party to help shape our policy directions."

The challenge of the Democrats remains immense despite the changes it has initiated. Its future rests with the implementation of its reforms and whether it can find a new leadership and leader that can steer the party to the next election after Feb 2.

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