As Thailand’s oldest political party battles internal strife post-May’s General Election, former Palang Pracharat Party Bangkok MP, Ms Wattanya Bunnag, known as Madame Dear, announces her bid for the Democratic Party leadership.

Thailand’s oldest political party has been engulfed in an internal civil war since the May General Election with former Minister of Agriculture Chalermchai Sri-on battling it out with ex-Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva. Now, a new face is set to enter the arena, former Palang Pracharat Party Bangkok MP, Ms Wattanya Bunnag, also known as Madame Dear.

Former Palang Pracharat Party MP for Bangkok, Ms Wattanya Bunnag, also known as Madame Dear, who served from 2019 until August 2022, is to become a candidate for the leadership of the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest party. Two leading contenders for the role already exist within the divided party, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (left top) and former Minister of Agriculture and Secretary-general Chalermchai Sri-on (bottom left).

As the political landscape in Thailand continues to re-orientate itself following May’s General Election victory by the Move Forward Party and the defection of the Pheu Thai Party from its pre-election political promises to coalesce with former junta parties to elect Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin in August, not much attention has been paid to the upheaval in the Democrat Party, the country’s oldest.

It lost 28 seats in the May 14th poll and only returned 25 members to the House of Representatives.

This has left Democratic Party members grappling with the future course of the party following the swift departure of former Deputy Prime Minister and Ministry of Commerce Jurin Laksanawisit, who resigned as the party leader on the night of the General Election, citing responsibility for the stunning electoral defeat. 

Still trying to select a new leader over six months since the General Election defeat when the party lost 28 seats becoming a diminished, minor force

The party, in the wake of this resignation, and over six months later, is still attempting to select a new leader, marking a pivotal moment in its history and one where it appears that its very survival may be in doubt as it is riven by faction and appears to be rudderless.

Move Forward Party’s good election result leaves uncertainty as to who will form the next government

The party after the May election has been seen as a relatively minor force in Thai politics, a far cry from the days when it was the party of government.

Many analysts trace this back to its participation in government after the 2006 coup d’état in Thailand when Abhisit Vejjajiva was at the helm but the party suffered even further loss due to its participation in the last government of General Prayut Chan Ocha.

Difficult times with an overt power struggle and deep divisions which come down to two key factions

The process since May, however, to find a new leader has been unprecedentedly difficult. 

Extraordinary general meetings held to elect the party’s executive committee and a new leader have faced setbacks, primarily due to internal conflict. 

The power struggle within the party has manifested in two factions: the ‘Friends of Chalermchai’ group, led by acting party leader Mr Chalermchai Sri-on, formerly Minister of Agriculture in the last government of General Prayut and an opposing group comprising senior figures and former leaders, notably former House of Representatives Speaker, Prime Minister and party leader himself Mr Chuan Leekpaiand and former leader Banyat Bantadtan, rallying behind the former leader and premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Mr Abhisit, who advocates for party unity, has called for the party’s survival amidst this internal strife.

However, his appeal has met with silence from the current MPs, reflecting the complexity of the party dynamics.

Idealists and pragmatists battle over the future course, agenda and direction of the historic party

Political insiders suggest that the two camps can be divided into idealists represented by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who refused to engage with General Prayut Chan ocha after the 2019 General Election and accepted the political wilderness as his party joined the former coalition with the Palang Pracharat Party and the pragmatists led by former Minister Chalermchai Sri-on

Amid this political turmoil, a new contender has emerged in the form of Ms Wattanya Bunnag, also known as Madame Dear, a former Palang Pracharat Party MP who resigned her seat in August 2022 over voting tactics and subsequently rejoined the Democrat Party.

The Democrat Party is currently in opposition and seen as a spent force but the idealists see an opportunity to rebuild by appealing to the rise of a younger and more educated electorate who may appreciate its history and the need for a moderate agenda for reform.

The 29-year-old is married to media tycoon Shine Bunnag who is the Chief Executive Officer of The Nation Media Group in Bangkok.

Madame Dear is well-known in Bangkok

As the president of the Bangkok Political Innovation Working Group within the Democratic Party, she has expressed her interest in running for the party leadership.

Ms Wattanya is set to make her official announcement in a press conference following a decisive decision to enter the Democratic Party leadership race.

Adding a symbolic touch to her candidacy, Ms Wattanya plans to pay homage to Mother Earth, a tradition deeply rooted in the party’s symbolism. The act involves squeezing her hair into a bun, a sacred object representing the party, at 9:09 a.m. on November 29th, before formally launching her campaign.

As the race intensifies, Ms Wattanya’s entry introduces a new dynamic to the Democratic Party’s leadership struggle.

Her decision to enter the fray underscores the desire for change and rejuvenation within the party, potentially reshaping its future trajectory.

Party seeks its place in a rapidly evolving political square where allegiances and dividing lines have switched in a country with chronic problems

With the internal divisions laid bare and those with leadership aspirations now making themselves known, the Democratic Party stands at a crossroads, grappling with the challenge of restoring unity while navigating the complexities of contemporary Thai politics.

At length, old political allegiances and dividing lines have changed radically as the younger Thai generation seeks a new future for the country. 

The old Red shirt and Yellow shirt divide is dead after the return of Thaksin Shinawatra in August at the same time as what was seen as a betrayal of the democratic principle by the Pheu Thai Party’s cooperation with parties associated with the military junta, something it will pay dearly for at the next election.

Thaksin and Pheu Thai have burned their bridges with their national ‘family’ and loyal support base

At the same time, Thailand is left confronting chronic economic and social problems such as an inadequate education system, lack of inward investment, inequality and a serious ageing problem, all of which are undermining economic growth. 

The upcoming weeks promise to be crucial as the party navigates this intricate landscape to determine its future course under new leadership.

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Further reading:

Democrat Party top leader warns of voices of hate toppling the ‘spirit of democracy’ in Thailand

Pita shares cast a pall over historic May 14th Election, fears that the results may be nullified by a court

Compromise mooted between Pheu Thai and Move Forward on House Speaker job before key meeting

Kooky Palang Pracharat reports rejected on Tuesday by Prawit as Pheu Thai stands by Pita for PM

Move Forward’s ‘Government of Hope’ coalition delivers a programme promising a new charter

Jatuporn warns Pheu Thai may be turned as he predicts a political impasse. Should wait for 2024

Election vote for Move Forward may have been a cry for help from voters mired in short-term debt

Pita, Move Forward and eight other parties meet in Bangkok and come out smiling, ready to govern

Pita plots a new coalition government with Pheu Thai but open conflict has already raised its head in the Senate

Move Forward Party’s good election result leaves uncertainty as to who will form the government