Former Thai premier Abhisit fends off challengers to retain Democrat Party leadership

Abhisit taking part in voting for Democrat leader at the party's headquarters on Nov 9, 2018. PHOTO: COURTESY OF DEMOCRAT PARTY

BANGKOK - Former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has fended off challengers to retain his seat as Democrat Party chief, as political parties around the kingdom intensified preparations for an election tentatively set for next February.

The 54-year-old pipped rivals Dr Warong Dechgitvigrom and Mr Alongkorn Ponlaboot to the post after an extended cross-country campaign, winning 67,505 votes out of more than 120,000 cast by Democrat members nationwide. His nearest challenger was Dr Warong, who received 57,689 votes.

Mr Abhisit declined to answer questions from the media after his victory was announced early Saturday afternoon, saying he would make a statement on Sunday (Nov11).

He now leads Thailand's oldest political party into an uncertain political landscape in a country still under military rule.

Several members of the military government have cited Feb 24 as the tentative election date. Deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told reporters on Thursday: "Whether or not the date is Feb 24 is up to the Election Commission, not the National Council for Peace and Order. We are all aware at this moment that it will likely be Feb 24 but it will be the Election Commission that confirms it."

The National Council for Peace and Order refers to the ruling junta, which has continued to wield absolute power since a military coup in 2014.

Key political players meanwhile are keeping their cards close to their chests. The longtime ban on political activity was only lifted partially in September, but election campaigning is still banned.

Prime minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha, despite recently launching several social media accounts and extensively touring the country, has yet to announce his candidacy.

The Puea Thai party, which won a landslide victory in the last election in 2011, unveiled a leadership line-up last month that conspicuously kept some of its most important figures out of executive posts.

Meanwhile, the scions of several Puea Thai politicians were unveiled this week as key members of a new party called the Thai Raksa Chart Party led by former Puea Thai lawmaker Preechapol Pongpanit.

This sparked talk that it was a "back-up party" for Puea Thai. Its earlier iterations were dissolved by court rulings over the past decade.

Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who headed the Puea Thai-led government from 2011 to 2014, is living in exile to avoid a jail sentence for negligence. Her brother Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a coup in 2006 and is also living abroad to evade a jail sentence.

Thailand's constitution was rewritten after the 2014 coup to introduce proportional representation, which makes it difficult for one big party like Puea Thai to dominate elections as happened previously.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Thai Raksa Chart's registrar Chayika Wongnapachant, who is also Yingluck's niece, denied that her party was a "back-up" for Puea Thai but appeared to affirm suggestions by observers that it was set up to secure the most seats possible for Puea Thai and its allies under the new electoral system.

"We are not a 'back-up' party. We are our own party," she stressed. "The person who drafted the Constitution wanted Thailand to have many political parties. So it's natural that former members of parliament who want to continue serving as MPs after the next election have to find a way to continue serving the people."

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