Bangkok, Thailand – The leader of the Democrats wants Thailand’s oldest political party to be at the “core of government” after Sunday’s election, the first since the military seized control of the country in 2014 after months of street protests.
Abhisit Vejjajiva told Al Jazeera his party wants to move beyond the conflicts of the past and that a new civilian government would be able to make changes to the system put in place by the military under General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The generals have introduced a new constitution, revised the electoral system and drawn up a 20-year development plan that is supposed to be followed by any new government. The measures, as well as the continued existence of repressive laws, are likely to ensure the military’s continued influence over Thai politics.
Prayuth is hoping to remain in power as a civilian prime minister.
Abhisit, who was prime minister with military backing in 2008 and was in charge during a bloody crackdown on protesters two years later, insists the Democrat Party has no interest in playing the role of ‘kingmaker’.
Al Jazeera: You have ruled out working with Prayuth, but you have indicated you are willing to work with Palang Pracharat, the military-backed political party. Explain your reasoning?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: When Prayuth is removed from the equation what you are left with would be a party of elected MPs. None of which will include any of the ministers of the current government. That’s why we’re not ruling out the possible talks with them because left to themselves these elected MPs can break away from being part of the current regime.
Al Jazeera: But given the way the constitution is structured and the 20-year plan, can anyone truly break away?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: In these days of very rapid change anyone who can stick to a 20-year plan without any flexibility must be fooling themselves. We are confident we can convince people when changes are necessary to the plan and if necessary we can amend the laws related to this matter. We shouldn’t begin a new government by thinking what we cannot do. We should set out clearly what we need to do and try to achieve that. We believe the priorities now are to revive the economy quickly, to put in place changes that will equip Thailand to face technological disruptions, to handle an ageing society, to deal with structural inequality.
Al Jazeera: The Democrats are Thailand’s oldest political party, but this election has seen quite a buzz around Future Forward. How confident do you feel about Sunday?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: We welcome the competition. That’s what democracy is about isn’t it? We offer not just a progressive platform economically and socially, but we also offer a platform that is not confrontational because want to get things done. I think Thailand has had enough of, shall we say, political grandstanding, that leads to conflicts. We have lost more than a decade in terms of opportunities because of the political conflicts. We need to move beyond that.
Al Jazeera: You say the point of conflict in Thailand is shifting. In what sense?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: The source of conflict in the past may be between supporters of different political parties, but it’s clear to us that the next source of conflict might come from the attempt, if seen by the public, of the current regime trying to extend their rule by unfair means. That’s what we need to be careful about. Put simply, elections needed to be free and fair and at the moment there is clearly different treatment that we get from the party that is supporting the current regime. So we don’t want a government that is set up that is seen by the people to have taken advantage of these things because it could create dissatisfaction, even frustration and anger. And if even the senators are brought in to try to tip the balance of power that will fuel the kind of negative feeling even more.
Al Jazeera: So isn’t the new constitution just a recipe for greater instability?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: Potentially, yes, and that’s why we are offering a way out. We are saying why not support parties that will not support this new source of conflict, and also avoid the old conflicts where even elected governments come in, abuse power, get involved in corrupt practices, destroy the checks and balances and the faith that people have in the parliamentary system and then the whole system deteriorates to a point where a coup d’etat takes place. We need to avoid those pitfalls.
Al Jazeera: But aren’t the Democrats also part of that history?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: Everybody is part of that history, even the new players because they were part of that political process also. Everybody needs to rethink, reassess, learn from the past and use that to move forward.
Al Jazeera: So how many seats do you think the Democrats can get on Sunday?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: It’s difficult to work out because it’s a new system. We have to estimate the popular vote against the total number of votes and so on. But we hope to retain much of the support we had in 2011 despite increased competition. We would be happy with seats of around, say, round numbers, of 150.
Al Jazeera: The Democrats have been described as the kingmaker …
Abhisit Vejjajiva: That’s not what we want to be. We want to be at the core of the next government. We want to lead the country out of the current economic situation and into a new political era.
Al Jazeera: In view of that, given any government will require a coalition, could you, despite the past, work with Pheu Thai in the national interest?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: I think we need to preserve the trust of the people. If people feel politicians will do whatever is convenient just to gain power that doesn’t serve the system well. I’ve said for many years that if Pheu Thai would just step out of the shadow of the former prime minister [Thaksin Shinawatra] and convince us that they are going to work for the people rather than the interests of the few, then we are open to talks. But their recent actions over the past few months suggest they have not been able to do that.
Al Jazeera: But if the alternative were a military-style government?
Abhisit Vejjajiva: It’s not. It’s us at the core of the government. That’s what I’m saying, which is why I’m not interested in this kingmaker role. Neither side is offering a realistic chance for the country to move ahead.