Thailand's oldest political party chooses new leader

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BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's oldest political party chose an experienced insider as its new leader Wednesday following an abysmal performance in recent elections that led to the resignation of its previous chief.

The Democrat Party voted for Jurin Laksanawisit to succeed Abhisit Vejjajiva, a former prime minister who resigned after the March 24 general election. Jurin has served in the Cabinets of two Democrat-led governments, most notably as education minister and public health minister, and has been elected to Parliament 11 times.

More a party insider than a charismatic politician, he is not associated with the group of radicals who broke with the party in late 2013 to stage militant anti-government street demonstrations that eventually triggered a military coup in May 2014. Whether he will try to reconcile with the breakaway faction is unclear.

Jurin, 63, has been acting leader since Abhisit's resignation. He comes from Phang-nga province in the south, where the Democrats traditionally do best.

His southern connection, along with his long experience in the party and in Parliament and government, won him support from senior colleagues including three previous party leaders: former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, Abhisit and Banyat Bantadtan. Their backing helped him win 160 out of 291 votes cast in the leadership vote, in which he faced three challengers.

The party, founded in 1946, has generally espoused a liberal form of royalism. It finished fourth in the election as voters in its Bangkok and southern strongholds deserted it. Its supporters apparently switched their allegiance to a military-backed party that backs former army commander Prayuth Chan-ocha, who became prime minister by staging the 2014 coup.

The Democrats had previously been the most important challenger to political parties loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup but whose supporters have made repeated strong comebacks until this year.

The Democrats have not yet announced if they will back Prayuth for prime minister. The March election gave no single party an absolute majority, so the two parties with the most seats — the anti-military, pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai, and the military-backed Palang Pracharath, which is nominating Prayuth — are each seeking to form a coalition to capture a majority of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives.

Prayuth should easily be able to return to office because the prime minister will be selected by a joint vote of the lower house and the appointed Senate, which represents conservative interests and essentially was chosen by the junta. However, if his rivals control the lower house, he will have a hard time passing laws and getting a budget approved. The Democrats have previously expressed a disinclination to support either Pheu Thai or Palang Pracharath, but the 52 seats they hold would be helpful to either side.

Jurin said he would maintain some core aspects of the Democrat Party, such as its commitment to Thailand's constitutional monarchy, while other features such as the party's administrative functions and personnel should be modernized.

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