The Death of the Democrat Party?
By Joel Selway and Allen Hicken
Picture: Democrat Party Crest
The March 24, 2019 election was a disaster for the Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party. The Democrats performed worse in the 2019 elections than they did in any election since 1975, save one. With 3,947,726 votes, or just 11.11% of the votes, the dismal performance led the party leader, Abhisit Vejajiva, to immediately step down from his post. Figure 1 maps the party’s vote shares by province. As expected, they performed the worst in the strongholds controlled by Pheu Thai, the Northeast and Upper North (Lanna). Support for the party also tumbled in the Lower North and East, where the party had been gaining some ground in prior elections. What is most shocking, however, is the party’s performance in the traditional Democrat strongholds of Bangkok and the South. In this post, we take a closer look at the pattern of support (or lack thereof) for the Democrats and explore some of the factors behind the party’s collapse.
Figure 1. Democrat Party Vote Share, Comparing 2011 to 2019
Source: Authors’ Own Creation
Caught Between two Poles
This was a polarized election, with most parties and voters orienting themselves around the question of whether the junta should continue in power. A polarized environment by itself need not have spelled doom for the Democrats. The party has done quite well in other polarized elections, for example in September 1992, 2007, and 2011. What was different this time around?
First, in those past polarized elections the Democrats were firmly on one side or the other. In September 1992, while the party tried to establish a position between the Suchinda’s military and Chamlong’s protestors, the party nevertheless clearly (if not permanently) placed itself on the side of the “angels”—parties that were opposed to military rule. In 2007 and 2011 the party was the main electoral vehicle for those opposed to Thaksin and his supporters. By contrast, in 2019 the party was caught squarely in the middle of a polarized environment. The party remained virulently anti-Thaksin, and by extension, anti-Pheu Thai, but the party equivocated over whether it was willing to support Prayuth as Prime Minister. This equivocation reflected divisions within the party over what its position should be, with Abhisit stating that he would not vote for Prayuth as Prime Minister, but other prominent party leaders taking the opposite position.
With the Democrats unwilling to commit to either the pro- or anti-military camp, traditional supporters of the Democrats were looking for other options. And they found them in the form of Palang Pracharat and Future Forward. For the first time since 2001 the Democrats were not the only credible alternative to the parties linked to Thaksin. Conservative voters who saw Pheu Thai as a threat, and favored military-managed stability no longer needed to vote for Democrats as the proxy party for Thailand’s conservative forces. They could now vote for the military party, Palang Pracharat, directly, and they did. On the other hand, voters who opposed military rule, but who were equally uncomfortable with Pheu Thai, suddenly had a new alternative to the Democrats—Future Forward. Both Future Forward and Palang Pracharat were able to lay new and credible claims on ideologies and positions that were once the domain of the Democrats.
A Quick Overview by Region
As a result of its equivocal position and availably of credible alternatives, support for the Democrats plummeted nationwide. Figure 1 compares the Democrat’s performance in 2019 to its performance in 2011. In 2011, the Democrats gained over 40% of the votes in 27 provinces (over 50% in 19 provinces, over 60% in 15, over 70% in 10, over 80% in 7, and over 90% in 1). In 2011, the Democrats won over 40% in just 2 provinces. There were no provinces in which they won over 50% of the vote.
Table 1 shows the average constituency vote share by region. Support for the Democrats fell in every region, with a low of just 2.54% of the vote in the Northeast. In their stronghold of the South support for the party cratered, falling from 73.01% in 2011 to just 28.05% in 2019.
Table 1. Democrat Party Vote Share by Region, 2011 & 2019
Source: Authors’ own calculation using ECT data
When we break their performance down by sub-region, we can see that the Democrat’s vote share fell into the single-digits in 5 of the 11 sub-regions. In Bangkok, where some pre-election polls predicted a Democrat pick-up of 22 seats, they tumbled to a humiliating fourth place, winning none of the 30 seats up for grabs. In the East, West and Lower North, two sub-regions of where the Democrats had made in-roads in 2011, the party picked up just 9 seats compared to 33 in 2011.
In the South, the Democrat’s absolute dominance came to a calamitous end. After winning 94.34% of seats in 2011 the party’s seat share plummeted to just 44.00%. The Democrats did place in the top three in 45/50 constituencies, but even when they placed second or third they were often far behind the winner. Only in 3 constituencies were they within 2% of the winner’s vote share. In eight of their second-place finishes, they were more than 10 percentage points from the winner’s vote share.
Table 2. Democrat Party Vote Share & Seat Share by Sub-Region, 2011 & 2019
Source: Authors’ own calculation using ECT data
Conclusion: Votes to Seats
In short, 2019 was nothing short of an electoral massacre. Figure 2 gives a national picture of the change in constituency seats between elections. Overall, their share of seats fell from 32.3% to 9.4%. Gone are virtually all of the party’s the seats in the East, Lower North, West, Bangkok, and several provinces in the South. As discussed above, most of the lost seats were captured by PPRP and FFP. From Figure 2, we can see that PPRP replaced the Democrats in the Lower North and West while in Bangkok and the East, it was FFP and PPRP that displaced the Democrats. Interestingly, in the South, while some polling projected Future Forward as the most popular party in the region, the Democrat’s main challengers were PPRP and Bhumjaithai (BJT). Lastly, in the 3 Malay-majority provinces of the Deep South—Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat—the Democrat’s main competition was the Islamic Prachachart Party. Prachachart won 6/10 constituencies in these provinces. The Democrats placed second in only one of the 10 constituencies.
Figure 2. Democrat Party Constituency Seats, Comparing 2011 to 2019
Source: Author’s Own Creation
 It is interesting to note that the only election since 1975 in which the Democrats performed more poorly than 2019 was the March 1992 election, where it won only 10.6 percent of the vote. This was also an election in which a newly-formed, military-backed party, (in this case, Samakkhi Tham) was the second largest vote-getter, and the largest seat-getter.)