For nearly 70 years, the Democrat Party of Thailand has fought for parliamentary democracy, and against populism and authoritarianism. But as the country looks for a future beyond military rule, the party's hopes of leading a new democratic Thailand are hampered by its urban, elitist image, and the willingness of some members to collaborate with the generals.
Without radical reform, the party risks marginalization, creating an opening for a new "third force" in Thai politics that could bridge the deep divisions in the existing political order. This should be a movement or party that draws together liberal intellectuals across the political spectrum -- whether they are "red shirt" supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, "yellow" opponents of Thaksin, or of any other political persuasion.
Since the demise of absolute monarchy on June 24, 1932, Thailand has witnessed a long struggle between the forces of communism, socialism, fascist-nationalism and liberalism. At the inception of constitutional rule, democracy and representative government were weak and unsophisticated. Military officers, mostly foreign educated, were an indispensable part of the process of drawing up the road map for a constitutional monarchy in a parliamentary democratic setting. The military was at times a part of the government, and was a constant and influential key player in the new political system. Often, these officers established, took over or amalgamated political parties to support their ambitions.
Successful businessmen also wanted to become prime ministers or members of the cabinet, so they either supported or set up political parties of their own. Such military- or business-backed parties lacked deep-rooted ideologies and commitment to the public good. Typically, such parties were more or less based on individual personalities. Often, their objectives were narrow and their duration short.
However, there were three parties that were based on ideology, namely the Socialist, Communist and Democrat parties. The Socialist Party did not last long, for lack of able leadership and funding. The Communist Party was outlawed, and its external support disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union and China's decision to join the global market economy.
As a result, the Democrat Party of Thailand has been the only viable, sustainable political party for almost seven decades. The party has been instrumental in forging parliamentary democracy, and in struggling against authoritarian regimes and beliefs. During the past decade, it has stood up against the populist democracy of the Thaksin years.
However, the party is perceived to be weak in management know-how -- excellent at producing ideas, but incapable of implementation or short-term delivery. It is also seen by many Thais as elitist, urban and out of touch with the reality of the country's situation and plight of orinary people.
The Democrat Party therefore must reform itself, to rebrand, to be relevant and to be able to communicate in order to make people believe that it knows what they want and can deliver. On top of this self-reform imperative there is another vital internal challenge, which is to adhere firmly to democratic principles and not to compromise with the military-led government's plans for a limited form of democracy. Compliance and capitulation should not be exchanged for seats in a new government.
There are those inside the Democrat Party who will stand firm in defense of these principles. But there are also some who would be willing to compromise in order to be part of the future centers of power. The Democrat Party will have to decide soon on which course of direction to take.
Even if the party opts to stand by its principles it would still have to undertake drastic reforms, rebranding and repositioning. It must be able to offer comprehensive socio-economic policy measures, and a time frame to deliver promises and commitments. Without such reforms, it would become irrelevant and marginalized.
Thailand would then have to look forward to a "third way" out of the national political problem. The key players in the short term will be the military-backed party (or parties) and the political forces backed by Thaksin. Both are self-interested, and neither aims to serve the public good.
The Democrat Party is the only true public party, but without reform, it will not be able to regain trust and public confidence. Without that hope, the people will look elsewhere. A third force of liberal ideas and undertakings will be needed, and with the appropriate support will emerge to lead Thailand out of the jungle of vested-interest politics, away from patron-client political conduct, and toward a more rational and rule-based political system.
Kasit Piromya is a former foreign minister of Thailand, and a member of the policy committee of the Democrat Party of Thailand.