Bangkok, Thailand – Just north of the Thai capital, in a relatively quiet section of Bangkok’s concrete sprawl, buildings belonging to three key ministries sit side by side. In front of these offices, there are no protesters or barricades. Nevertheless, the gates are chained and padlocked, and no-one goes in or comes out.
The absence of demonstrators here drives home a point about the anti-government campaign’s strength: This doesn’t need to be a popular movement in order to succeed.
Recent months have seen tens of thousands of Thai protesters occupy major intersections and block access to government buildings in their efforts to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government they say is terminally corrupt.
But on Sunday, the number of people camping out at Bangkok’s major intersections barely numbered 100 – a far cry from the sustained intensity of rallies in 2010 which were organised by the pro-Shinawatra “Red Shirt” movement that helped bring the ruling Pheu Thai Party to power.
And yet, government offices remain shut down. The protesters are making their presence felt despite their absence. And as the nation reckons with the results of a controversial election, another group is doing the same: Thailand’s Democrat Party.
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If the Democrats were to select a slogan that was an honest reflection of the party, “always the bridesmaid” might be a good choice. Perennial runners-up, the Democrats have been coming in second place ever since telecom magnate Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck’s brother – transformed the Thai political landscape in 2001 by catering to the long-neglected but massive rural voter base in the country’s north and northeast. Thaksin served as prime minister from 2001 until he was overthrown by a military coup in 2006.
The Democrats have lost every general election since 2001 – even ones in which the rules were re-written heavily in their favour. The only time they came to power was when they were installed after Thaksin’s party was outlawed in 2008. If the Democrats had participated in this latest election, they most likely would have lost again.
Unable to effectively compete in the polls, they decided to boycott them instead.
A ‘desperate decision’?
“It’s a desperate decision rather than anything else,” says Kriengsak Charoenwongsak, a former Democrat member of parliament, referring to the party’s decision to boycott. “[The Democrats] know they cannot win, and this is the last chance to fight the other side, and they cannot fight in parliament so they choose to fight in the street.”
While the Democrats say they want reform, some analysts say their aim is to delegitimise the election results and create an environment conducive to another military or judicial intervention, the party’s only real hope of returning to power. But it’s a high-risk tactic, one that could debilitate and maybe even destroy Thailand’s oldest political party by rendering it irrelevant.
The Democrat Party was founded in 1946 by a group of royalists after the overthrow of absolute monarchy in Thailand. The party has often been perceived as elitist and out of touch with ordinary Thais – its influence comes not from any popular mandate, but from its ties to powerful people.
“They have a few people who control everything,” says Kriengsak, a lifelong supporter of the Democrats who left the party after becoming disillusioned with the way it works. “You need to decentralise the party so that people have a stake in every region. They are very strong in the south and in Bangkok – but in the rest of Thailand they are very weak. People realise this, but they are unwilling to make the trade-off between the need to decentralise to strengthen the party and losing the control they have now.”
Suthep Thaugsuban, the face of the anti-government movement, has long been acknowledged as a key backroom deal-maker within the party, and as the power behind the throne during the last Democrat administration led by Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Before reimagining himself as an anti-corruption crusader, Suthep was the central figure in a corruption scandal that brought down a Democrat government in the mid-1990s. He faces murder charges for his role in the crackdown on red shirt protesters in 2010 that left 91 people dead. Many people who sympathise with the anti-government movement’s goals have said in private that it is Suthep’s prominence within the movement that makes them shy away from becoming active. The consequence is that a large bloc of voters who genuinely support the Democrats or genuinely oppose the government are left effectively disenfranchised.
‘100 percent against this government’
“I used to make about $330 every day. Now it’s about $40, maybe $60,” says Chumpol Dechupakarn, a clothes vendor in the usually busy Victory Monument area, an important transportation hub in Bangkok. For a while now, demonstrators have been camping in the middle of the intersection, shutting it down.
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“This protest is really, really bad for business. If this keeps going on, I’m ruined. But I am 100 percent against this government.”
Chumpol thinks the protests are important, but he wants them to end quickly and for differences to be resolved in more constructive ways. He knows that’s not likely to happen. “They [the Democrats] can’t win in the vote. It’s difficult to know what to do, or what will happen, but right now if they take part in the election they will not win, so it doesn’t make sense for them to take part,” he says.
While the political conflict in Thailand is often portrayed as the elite against the rural poor, a more appropriate picture would depict two struggles: the elites on either side pitted against each other; and the rural poor against a substantial part of the middle class, which tends to be anti-government – and especially anti-Thaksin – for two key reasons:
One is Thaksin’s populist policies, which had a huge redistributive effect and shook up the traditional Thai hierarchy with which the middle class was comfortable.
The other is corruption. Thaksin’s supporters in the once impoverished northeast often say that they know he’s corrupt, but that all other politicians are also corrupt – and that Thaksin is the first one to have really done something for them.
Thaksin’s middle-class opposition have a similar riposte. “Yes, other politicians are also corrupt. But none of them were ever this corrupt,” says Da, a protester in the Victory Monument area who wished to be identified only by her nickname.
Thaksin’s corruption was perceived as especially brazen. Critics say he was autocratic and heavy-handed, and was on track to turn Thailand into his personal fiefdom.
For those like Chumpol and Da who oppose him, the ineffectiveness of the Democrat Party makes it difficult for their voices to be heard in parliament.
“For a good democratic system you need to have a strong opposition, a viable opposition, with a not-so-huge gap between ruling party and opposition,” says Kriengsak. “The Democrat Party loses all the time – they are not strong enough to contend, and this is bad for democracy in Thailand.”
Follow Maher Sattar on Twitter: @mahersattar