A new party but with old values

A new party but with old values

The Democrats could reinvent themselves by emerging as a new conservative force, writes Nattaya Chetchotiros

The Democrat Party faces an uphill battle to bring back the good times as its popularity is plummeting in the wake of internal conflicts that have left it in disarray.

When in opposition, the Democrats have long been known for their ability to keep the government in check. This was the case again when they scrutinised the government's 2024 budget bill during a recent parliamentary debate from Jan 3-5.

However, in recent years, the party has been dealt some harsh blows, ranging from party veterans defecting to other parties, to internal conflicts during Jurin Laksanawisit's tenure as party leader.

According to observers, the party now faces a crisis of faith and its new leader Chalermchai Sri-on must rise to the challenge of reversing the situation and restoring party unity.

Mr Chalermchai, while party secretary-general, vowed to quit politics if the Democrats won fewer than 52 seats in last year's election.

Despite witnessing the party's disappointing poll performance, Mr Chalermchai not only failed to do so, but stood for the party leadership.

He was elected overwhelmingly and uncontested at the party assembly on Dec 9, in which the poll was reportedly engineered to favour him.

The leadership contest led many analysts to believe this could spell the end for the country's oldest political party.

Mr Chalermchai dismissed a rumour the Democrats under his leadership may switch sides from the opposition and join the coalition government led by Pheu Thai.

He said the party is committed to being an opposition party and their scrutiny of the 2024 budget bill reflected the solidarity and unity among members. "The party will not serve as a spare part [for the Pheu Thai-led government] as alleged," he said.

Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, told the Bangkok Post this remark should be taken with a grain of salt.

"His words should only be believed after the Democrats have remained in the opposition camp until the end of this government's four-year term," Mr Stithorn said.

The departure of several long-serving party members is fuelling speculation that a new party may be on the horizon.

Among the high-profile figures to quit the party were former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, former deputy public health minister Sathit Pitutecha, and former PM's Office minister Sathit Wongnongtoey.

Some of these individuals and current members have discussed the possibility of establishing a new party with a conservative, pro-monarchy stance that will not only embrace changes, but also uphold the rule of law and justice, a source said.

This new party would be a collaboration between seasoned politicians who will devise strategies and play a supportive and advisory role behind the scenes and a group of energetic young leaders who will take a prominent role and actively represent the party.

Conservatism alive and well

Surachart: 'Don't worry about the MFP'

Surachart Bamrungsuk, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, told the Bangkok Post that he welcomed the idea of setting up a party that espouses conservatism. "Conservative parties will never fade away," he said.

If those former Democrats form a new conservative party as reported, it must also rival the United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, which also adopts conservative ideologies, Mr Surachart said.

Even though former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is no longer a UTN member, its secretary-general, Akanat Promphan, still has what it takes to steer the UTN forward, Mr Surachart said.

"A new party should not worry about the Move Forward Party, which is popular among young voters, as they cater to different target groups," he said.

"I want to see a conservative party become a mainstream party. Such a party should not bow to the military. The new party should focus mainly on tackling the unrest in the deep South," he added.

"It also must adhere to its ideologies. It will never be independent if it is subservient to financiers,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Surachart said veteran politicians who remain with the Democrat Party such as Chuan Leekpai and Banyat Bantadtan should also support and guide young party members through tough times.

He also noted that Watanya Bunnag, chairwoman of the party's political innovation committee, is the party's rising star, though she needs to be groomed further by seasoned party figures.

Ms Watanya, 39, wanted to enter the party leadership contest, but was unable to do so because she failed to win enough support to waive a regulation requiring a candidate to have been with the party for five years.

Stithorn: Doubts over Democrat commitment

She defected from the Palang Pracharath Party last year.

Mr Stithorn also believes there is still room for conservative parties to thrive in the country, adding that while the UTN is the only party that makes clear its conservative stance, the Democrats seem to shy away from it out of fear it will lose young voters if it draws closer.

"Since Gen Prayut is no longer involved in politics, the Neo-Democrats must be fully committed to their conservative stance, rather than making just a half-hearted attempt," he said, referring to former Democrats wanting to set up a new party.

"If it can do so, it will win the backing of those who do not support the MFP and Pheu Thai, because in the next election, the UTN may no longer exist," Mr Stithorn said.

While there are still people who prefer a party with a conservative stance, such a party will not grow into a big one, but it could grow into a medium-sized party.

"There will be enough time for alternative parties to emerge before the next election," Mr Stithorn said.

Phichai: New party must rival UTN

Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, a political scientist from the National Institute of Development Administration, told the Bangkok Post that any new conservative party must have a clear policy stance as it must rival the UTN for voter support.

"While a conservative party will never fade away, it is hard for such a party to grow. People who prefer a conservative party want a leader with strong leadership skills and moral integrity, but such leaders are difficult to come by," Mr Phichai said.

"The glory days of the current Democrat Party are now at an end, though a new-generation member like Ms Watanya has emerged as a beacon of hope," Mr Phichai said.

Olarn: Parties fear losing young voters

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University, said many Thais still support a "modern" conservative party that is willing to adapt to change.

"Several parties shy from adopting conservativism because they fear they will lose support from young voters.

"But we must admit that conservative parties still have a following; they only need to adjust to changing circumstances," Mr Olarn said.

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