By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s oldest political party is heading into an election on Sunday with leader Abhisit Vejjajiva facing tough choices in the first polls since the military seized power in a 2014 coup.
Will Abhisit’s pro-business, pro-establishment Democrat Party join with a new pro-military party in a coalition after the vote, likely extending the army’s dominance of power?
Or will the Democrats band together with a “pro-democracy front” to keep the army out of government – but at the price of working with its bitter foe for 15 years: parties loyal to ousted populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Or is there a third option, as Abhisit argues? One scenario could return Oxford-educated Abhisit to the prime minister’s office, which he held from 2008 to 2011 after a court dissolved a pro-Thaksin government.
“We will be the alternative in leading Thailand out of the last decade of troubles,” Abhisit, 54, told Reuters in an interview.
Prominent Democrats have been at the centre of Thailand’s turbulent politics since 2005, with some party members leading anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirt” protests against corruption that led to two military coups in a decade.
Sunday’s election has been billed by the military government as returning Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy to civilian, democratic rule. But critics say a new constitution, overseen by the generals, enshrines military influence over politics.
Doubts the army will truly give up power were heightened last month when a new pro-military party nominated junta chief and prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, as its prime ministerial candidate.
Abhisit this month said in a campaign video he would not support Prayuth’s staying on as prime minister, which he said would “breed conflict and is against the Democrat party’s principle that the people have the power”.
At the same time, Abhisit made clear he would be loath to work with the main pro-Thaksin party, Pheu Thai. The Democrats have long decried the Thaksin movement as corrupt and a threat to independent democratic institutions.
“I don’t want dictatorship and I don’t want corrupt people,” Abhisit said. “Corrupt politicians provided the pretexts for the military to stage all the coups in the last 20 years.”
Thaksin lives in self-exile to avoid a 2008 graft conviction he said was politically motivated but he retains widespread support, especially in the north and northeast.
The Democrats have traditionally drawn support from the Bangkok middle class and the south.
Abhisit’s hopes for a third way could come to nothing in an election increasingly defined by the face-off between pro-military parties, which have Prayuth as their candidate for prime minister and electoral rules that give them an advantage, and an anti-military bloc with Thaksin’s loyalists at its core.
While Abhisit has rejected Prayuth as prime minister, he has not ruled out a coalition with Palang Pracharat, the party that has nominated the junta leader.
Such a deal might see a “compromise” premier, perhaps Abhisit himself or another outside candidate.
The target for political parties is 376 seats in parliament – 50 percent plus one of the combined 250-seat upper house Senate and the 500-seat lower House of Representatives.
But with the junta appointing all 250 members of the Senate, no single party is likely to secure the 376 magic number on its own.
Given that the pro-military Palang Pracharat can count on the support of the Senate, it needs to win only 126 lower house seats to form a government.
By contrast, the parties opposed to a military role in government must win 376 seats in the lower house, three-quarters of the seats, to block the military from retaining control.
Still, most polls indicate Palang Pracharat won’t win enough seats on its own meaning it would need coalition partners, with the Democrats a likely choice.
The Democrats have come second to pro-Thaksin parties in every election since 2001, including the last one in 2011, when they got 35 percent of the vote to Pheu Thai’s 48 percent.
Opinion polls tend to show the Democrats coming second or third. The party will be competing for the anti-Thaksin vote with other parties, including Palang Pracharat.
The Democrat Party was founded in 1947 as a conservative, royalist movement, and has portrayed itself as a champion of civilian rule in a country that has seen 13 successful coups, even if at times it worked with military governments.
In 1992, the Democrats sided with anti-army demonstrators in an uprising that led to a bloody crackdown. The party won an election later that year but it was blamed for mishandling the wrenching fall-out of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which paved the way for the rise of telecoms tycoon Thaksin.
Amid polarisation in the 2000s, the Democrats benefited from the military’s opposition to Thaksin, and at times called for military intervention to oust pro-Thaksin governments.
Abhisit has rejected efforts by Thaksin’s loyalists to portray the election as a two-way fight between democracy and military-dominated rule.
“This election is not black and white, the country has more choices,” he told Reuters.
Anti-junta parties, however, argue there is no neutrality or third way in the election.
“Abhisit says he will not join with Pheu Thai, but does that mean he will join with Palang Pracharat?” asked Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai’s top prime ministerial candidate.
“There are only two sides,” she said. “So he must choose.”
(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)