After months of anxiety about the Democrat Party splitting up ahead of the next general election, it may be trying to pull itself together and make a pact to remain undivided.
At a recent low-key gathering, hundreds of the party’s core members turned out in a show of unity and promised to stay with the party and fight the upcoming elections together.
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According to a party source, about 300 members turned up — a relatively strong turnout — even though party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was notably absent, apparently to avoid drawing attention from the military.
Mr Abhisit was aware of the gathering, which took place about two weeks ago at a hotel in a Bangkok suburb, according to the source, but he chose not to attend to comply with the regime’s ban on political activities.
The meeting, according to the source, was attended by party bigwigs at national and local level. They pledged to stay united and contest the general election under the Democrat ticket no matter when it takes place.
Even those who joined the former People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) mass protest against the Yingluck Shinawatra administration confirmed their allegiance to the party. They insisted no one would break away to join a new party.
“There is a movement to support Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to remain in power after the general election. The Democrats will have a really difficult time winning a mandate [in the next election]. But we’ll give it our best shot,” said the source.
According to the source, the party members also weighed in on the political situation ahead of the planned election, with many believing political groups would be persuaded to support Gen Prayut as prime minister.
The Democrats, however, will wait and see how the political situation develops after the election is over, said the source.
The country’s oldest political party has reportedly been in crisis in recent months following speculation that the now-defunct PDRC protest movement led by former Democrat secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban was seeking to set up a new party.
Signs that Mr Suthep might form a party to contest the election surfaced when the former protest leader demanded changes to the organic law on political parties to create a level playing field for small ones to compete in the national polls.
The prospect of a party led by Mr Suthep competing in elections created a sense of unease among Democrat Party members because the former PDRC and the party share a popular support base in the South, the Democrats’ stronghold. Fighting for the same slice of the pie would not help either of them.
This also came at the height of speculation about a military-backed party being established to support Gen Prayut to remain as prime minister after the election, which was originally slated for this November but now looks highly likely to be pushed back until at least February 2019.
However, the situation is likely to become more stable for the Democrats following the recent indictments of Mr Suthep and eight core party members for their roles in the street protests against the Yingluck government from late 2013 to May 2014 that later triggered the coup d’etat.
The group was indicted on eight charges including insurrection, criminal association, illegal assembly and obstructing elections, while Mr Suthep and Chumpol Julasai face an additional charge of terrorism.
Miffed at the help offered
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha may not like what is happening with the increasingly fraught political situation in the country. However, critics reckon he has what it takes to untangle the mess.
Political uneasiness had been brewing but it did not result in major complications until after the organic bill on political parties passed the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), according to political analysts.
It is one of four essential bills needed to organise a general election. The bill, according to critics, introduced new rules which heavily burden political parties.
The parties must, for example, review their memberships before they can proceed to hold a primary vote in which the members select potential MP candidates to represent the parties in the general election. The party executives will decide who will be fielded on the party’s ticket only from among those on the list proposed by the members.
However, the review, as well as the compulsory verification of membership, has been lambasted as being unfair to existing political parties which must perform the tedious task of authenticating their memberships, a process requiring confirmation from more than a dozen state agencies in charge of citizenship registration.
The Democrat Party cried foul over the review and verification issues, complaining that newly established parties do not have to go through the same process. All they need do is have members fill in the admission form and membership instantly becomes legitimate.
Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said the database review and verification procedures could be shortened with the aid of online technology to remove red tape.
The National Council for Peace and Order and the government, apparently paying heed to political parties’ fears of not being able to meet the review deadline, have stepped up to the plate. Gen Prayut exercised Section 44 to issue an order amending the organic law on political parties to allow more time for the parties to complete their membership checks.
Members of parties are required to produce letters to confirm their membership and pay party fees within 30 days of April 1 or lose their status. Existing parties will not be able to begin their member registration process until April 1, while new parties can start on March 1.
Mr Abhisit said the Section 44 order has generated an unnecessary burden for parties while failing to comply with the constitution which stipulates that power under Section 44 must be exercised for the sake of reforms, promoting unity and maintaining security. Applying the order to rectify a law aimed at easing a legal technicality is not one of the criteria.
Also, the order was issued to amend the organic law with no feedback or opinions sought from the parties concerned, Mr Abhisit said.
Gen Prayut, according to the critics, needs only to lift the ban on political activities, enforced since the coup in May 2014, which would help speed up the review and verification processes. Parties would be able to resume meetings and expedite key steps to move the membership checks along quickly
The critics observed the NLA had also shown itself to be “overly sympathetic” to political parties after the majority of lawmakers scrutinising the organic law on the election of MPs were reportedly looking to rewrite it to make it possible to extend the deadline for holding an election from November to February next year.
The lawmakers were convinced political parties were pressed for time to review their memberships and sponsor the primary vote, which, according to electoral experts, promises to be a seriously complicated and drawn-out affair.
Some NLA members thought they were doing the political parties a favour by proposing to put off the deadline. However, many parties insisted the “empathy” was misplaced and totally uncalled for.
The ghost of parliament past
The Pheu Thai Party may be preparing for an election, which is suffering yet another delay most probably until early next year. However, for some of its former MPs, there is an important hurdle they feel they must cross.
And the hurdle is the ghost that is coming back to haunt the party, political observers say.
The National Legislative Assembly on Thursday night passed the much-anticipated organic draft law on the election of MPs which sets the time frame for the next general election. True to the expectations of many politicians, the bill had built into it a clause that allows the poll date to be delayed by up to 90 days from November.
The observers said despite yet another possible delay in the election, politicians and those aspiring to be one have come out of their political hiatus to “smell the coffee”. However, they must remain very cautious of the steps they take in making their moves as the National Council for Peace and Order ban on political activities has not been lifted.
For 40 former Pheu Thai MPs, the vote they cast in support of the amnesty bill back in 2013 threatens to land them in legal trouble with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) which has named a fact-finding committee to investigate them. The probe now stands between the 40 former MPs and the next poll.
If the NACC judges them guilty of supporting the amnesty bill with the implicit intention to benefit ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as accused by Pheu Thai opponents, the former MPs could face indictment for abuse of authority in the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions. Any punishment would look certain to include a five-year political ban, provided the case is wrapped up before the next polls takes place.
The bitterly controversial draft bill was set out to nullify corruption cases from 2006 onward, which would have exonerated Thaksin from the pending trials and conviction against him. Thaksin was sentenced to two years in jail for enabling his former wife, Khunying Potjaman Na Pombejra, to buy prime land on Ratchadaphisek Road at a discount, while he was serving as prime minister.
The bill was sponsored by Worachai Hema who was, at the time, a former Pheu Thai MP. The bill was met with stiff resistance from minority MPs as well as a large swath of people who were furious that the legislation had been pushed through by government lawmakers in the Lower House who ignored growing opposition to the bill.
The opponents said the majority lawmakers had appeared so adamant to pass the bill at all costs that they waited until late into the night to vote in favour of it when no one was looking.
The Yingluck Shinawatra government came under heavy pressure for allegedly having an ulterior motive in writing the legislation. It subsequently withdrew the bill before it reached the Senate although it was too late to undo the damage as the anti-government groups were already forming, which would later give rise to the consolidation of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee mass protests.
The protesters and the Pheu Thai-led government were at loggerheads for months until the military intervened by staging a coup to topple the administration.
The observers said the amnesty bill left an indelible blemish on the Yingluck administration and the 40 former MPs are still suffering as a result.
Pheu Thai has petitioned the NACC to abort the fact-finding probe against the 40 former MPs, claiming the commission has no authority to investigate the matter since the former MPs were exercising their duty as legislators with full parliamentary immunity.
Turning the tables on NACC president Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit the petition accused him of conflicts of interest for scrutinising the organic draft law on the NACC to permit under-qualified commissioners — according to the constitution — including Pol Gen Watcharapol himself, keep their posts.
However, critics say Pheu Thai should know better to concentrate on helping the 40 former MPs with an effective legal defence in case the NACC finds grounds in the abuse of authority allegation against the former lawmakers.