The success of the Phalang Pracharat Party-led coalition in winning the post of House Speaker for former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of the Democrat Party with 258 of 500 votes last Saturday was a crucial victory. It heralds the imminent reinstallation of 2014 coup leader and incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha as Thailand’s premier.
This was followed by the pro-Prayut coalition securing on the next day the posts of First and Second Deputy Speaker for Suchart Tancharoen of Phalang Pracharat and Supachai Posu of the Bhumjai Thai Party, respectively.
The outcome of the race for House Speaker and the failure to prevent the reincarnation of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta as a new Prayut administration are a double setback for the Phuea Thai Party-led “pro-democracy” coalition of seven parties.
The anti-junta coalition’s claim to control a majority in the House turned out to be unfounded. At least seven members of that coalition crossed party lines in the secret balloting to vote for Chuan. The anti-junta grouping’s nomination of Sompong Amornvivat, the chief election director of the Phuea Thai Party, attracted a dismal 235 votes.
Over the past weekend, the Democrat Party, with 52 seats in the House, and the Bhumjai Thai Party, with 51 seats, revealed their hands. They will join the pro-Prayut coalition spear-headed by Phalang Pracharat with its 115 House seats and support General Prayut’s bid to retain the premiership.
The Prayut bandwagon will also enjoy the support of 17 other small parties, holding a total of 35 seats. It will thus control 253 votes in the House, a slim majority of only 50.6 per cent of seats.
A joint parliamentary meeting of the House and the Senate will select the head of Thailand’s next government. The latter legislative body consists of 250 members hand-picked by the junta. Most of them are expected to vote for General Prayut. General Prayut is likely to receive close to 500 votes, more than sufficient to achieve the 376 vote needed to win the premiership with ease.
The only remaining question is whether defectors from the anti-junta side will vote for General Prayut. The premiership selection will be done through open balloting.
The joint parliamentary session will be held after the King has officially appointed the House Speaker, the two Deputy House Speakers, the Senate President and the two Senate Vice Presidents.
We can expect behind-the-scenes horse trading among major parties in the pro-Prayut coalition to intensify. Both the Democrat and Bhumjai Thai Parties want to secure what they consider their rightful share of important cabinet posts before the selection of the new premier. After that, their bargaining power will diminish.
General Prayut has already staked his claim to at least four key cabinet posts for his own men: defence minister, for fellow coup-maker and incumbent General Prawit Wongsuwan; interior minister, for additional coup-maker and incumbent General Anupong Paochinda; finance minister; and transport minister. His choices for the former two posts suggest the determination of the NCPO to maintain its hold on Thailand, while the latter two posts are most likely to go to senior members of the Phalang Pracharat Party.
General Prayut also wants to ensure continuity in national security policy and economic and infrastructural development under the new coalition government over the next four years.
Setbacks to “Pro-democracy” Side
The “pro-democracy” side thus has to accept the inevitable and prepare to cope with further setbacks in the near future.
The Phuea Thai Party lost a House seat in Chiang Mai after its successful candidate was found guilty of vote-buying. A by-election in that constituency last Sunday saw a landslide victory for Future Forward’s candidate. As the Phuea Thai Party could not contest in the by-election, most of its supporters cast their votes for the candidate of the Future Forward Party, its leading ally in the “pro-democracy” coalition.
Future Forward’s by-election victory is a small consolation to the young party which is facing other serious challenges.
Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been suspended from serving as a member of the House while a case against him is pending in the Constitutional Court. He is accused of failing to sell his shares in a firm whose business includes media activities before his application to vie for a House seat.
The Election Commission found Thanathorn’s alleged failure a violation of the election law. It has asked the Constitutional Court to terminate his the House membership.
Thanathorn is also facing yet another serious charge of breaking the political party law. By his own admission, he has lent about 110 million baht (S$4.7 million) to his own party, because the party was unable to raise enough funds to pay for its operations and election campaign.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre and a member of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. This commentary first appeared in ISEAS Commentaries.