In the Bangkok elections, the Democrats face an existential challenge 

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Photos from a Democrat Party fundraiser recently made their way online, causing a buzz within political circles. Four large posters were present: two of the Democrat Party’s previous leaders, Chuan Leekpai and Banyat Bantadtan, along with the current leader, Jurin Laksanawisit, and secretary-general Chalermchai Srion. Conspicuously absent: Abhisit Vejjajiva, Jurin’s predecessor as leader. 

The party spokesman quickly denied that this was any deliberate attempt to snub Abhisit. The fundraiser had exhibitions in four corners, and that corner was intended to honor those who currently held office within the Democrat Party. Abhisit does not currently have any official position; he was instead honored in another section on the party’s achievements.

Intentional or not, that so many saw a targeted slight at this fundraiser is reflective of the perceptions within the party that the current party leadership has an apathy towards its most recent prime minister. 

Many in the public believe that it was Abhisit’s decision to publicly declare that he would not support Prayut for prime minister in the lead-up to the 2019 general election that doomed the party’s campaign, turning its core voter base towards Palang Pracharath. The Democrat performance was disastrous; once a major party in what was almost a two party system, it garnered just 53 seats and a little over ten percent of the vote. Its attempt to rebrand as a “third alternative,” writes Petra Desatova in Thai Data Points, “satisfied virtually nobody.” 

Jurin, it is clear, has been seeking to turn a new page. He reneged on Abhisit’s promise and joined the government coalition. He has appointed his own team, neglecting many of Abhisit’s loyalists. The party machine, meanwhile, has been trying to promote Jurin as a viable prime ministerial candidate in his own right, talking up his achievements at the Commerce Ministry and plastering his image all over the party’s media. 

But what is still in doubt is whether Jurin can actually restore the party’s electoral health. The party’s performance in byelections under his leadership has not been impressive. The Democrats lost byelections in Nakhon Pathom and Nakhon Sri Thammarat (an ostensible stronghold), while declining to challenge the Lak Si byelection. It did avoid humiliating defeats in Songkhla and Chumporn, after pouring huge resources into defending home turf. 

Now, however, comes a clear test: the Bangkok local elections. In 2011, the Democrats had won 23 out of 33 parliamentary seats in Bangkok. In 2019, the Democrats shockingly did not win a single seat. Bangkok has long been a Democrat stronghold but by vote share it came in fourth in 2019, trailing PPRP, Future Forward and Pheu Thai. 

The Bangok election will be the first election run in more than just one or two constituencies since 2019, and therefore a deafening bellwether of public opinion. Indeed, it is as close to a practice run for the next general election as it gets. Whether or not Jurin can actually win anything in Bangkok will thus be an unavoidable test for his leadership. 

Most high-profile will be the gubernatorial contest, where the Democrats are running Dr. Suchatvee Suwansawat, the former president of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang. The Democrats have won the past four elections for governor: twice under Apirak Kosayodhin, and two more times under M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra. 

But that was in the context of an essentially head-to-head contest with the Thaksinite party. Now, facing a crowded field, the Democrat candidate is no longer the obvious choice; the former Democrat base have other choices. 

Suchatvee’s campaign has been bumpy, however, and Jurin could probably use that to explain away a loss. More imperative for Jurin is the performance of the Democrat candidates for the Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC), which acts as the city legislature.

At the last BMC election, the Democrats were indisputably dominant, winning 45 of 61 seats. This time, it is an open question of whether or not the Democrats can come anywhere close of repeating such a performance. Most threatening to the Democrats will be Aswin Kwanmuang’s Rak Bangkok group, who are explicitly running as the former governor’s team. 

The party will fight hard, because the results will be consequential. For one, Jurin needs a good performance to stop the bleeding from his party. 

He has attempted to paint his era as a Democrat renaissance, saying that “old blood is flowing back and new blood is flowing in.” To most, it will seem that a lot more old blood is flowing out and not much new blood flowing in. Despite his pledge to assemble a team of ‘avengers’ after becoming leader of the Democrats, Jurin’s leadership has saw a steady exodus of leaders. A poor Bangkok gubernatorial result will leave many more of the party’s key figures and future candidates pondering their eventual fate at the next election, and any continued exodus will atrophy the party’s electoral muscle even further. 

But above all, Jurin will want a good performance to prove his core raison d’étre within the party as an antidote to the Abhisit era. The party’s focus on delivering concrete results — the Jurin-era slogan is “tum dai wai, tum dai jing” (we deliver quickly, and we truly deliver) — is supposed to be a major contrast to what is seen as Abhisit’s attachment to highbrowed ideological arguments. Third alternative no longer, has subsuming the party in the coalition — the most consequential decision made by Jurin — done the party any good electorally? 

Perhaps a dual Suchatvee loss and underwhelming BMC result could be explained away by the party as the insufficiency of the gubernatorial candidate’s coattails. But analysts will be sure to parse for deeper causes. For one, it will provide a significant data point for the hypothesis that the Democrats have lost Bangkok. Has the party machine in the capital experienced terminal, irreversible decline? Is what was once one of its staunchest bases gone for good? Is the Democrat Party now truly just the party of the south? 

Others will interpret the result in light of national factors. Has the party’s decision to renege a very public promise by its former leader alienated many of its loyal voters? Do the public simply not know what the Democrat Party stands for, now that its brand has been eclipsed by PPRP? Is Jurin, despite the party’s attempt to upgrade his image, simply just not seen by the public as a viable leader? 

A strong Democrat performance in the BMC election would give the party renewed confidence heading into the next general election. But a clear loss would probably reignite the civil war within the party between Jurin and Abhisit’s followers, while leading to a lot more soul-searching — and perhaps a new leadership search.

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