Thailand’s House of Representatives is likely to witness commotion and the release of a considerable volume of hot air on 18 September. Its members will on that date hold a general debate on Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s omission of a required sentence pledging to uphold and observe the Thai constitution when his cabinet took its oath of office before the king on 16 July.
During the day-long debate, opposition parties will also question the prime minister on the government’s failure to declare the sources of revenue that it planned to use to fund the extraordinary new expenditures outlined in the government’s policy statement, unveiled that same month. Opposition parties contend that the two omissions represent serious violations of Section 161 and Section 162 of the constitution, respectively. They have for this reason demanded the general debate. Their apparent aim is to teach the premier a lesson on the rule of law and respect for the constitution, but without a vote of no confidence.
Prayut seems confident that he will be able to survive the upcoming political onslaught relatively unscathed. After all, on 27 August the king sent to him and to all the members of his cabinet signed copies of the text of the verbal advice and encouragement that he had offered during the July oath-taking ceremony. This is why Prayut has insisted that the oath, as taken, was sufficient and constitutional — that it was consistent with the king’s determination to continue, preserve, and build upon the legacy of his father the late King Bhumibol and to reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of all Thais.
Prayut can also point out that, on 11 September, the Constitutional Court decided against further consideration of a case concerning the incomplete oath. This decision may lead him to believe that he need not say much about the matter in response to queries from opposition parties.
While the general debate may well prove inconsequential, more significant developments are likely to unfold outside the House.
On the afternoon of same day as the debate in parliament, the Constitutional Court is scheduled to announce its ruling on a second case relating to Prayut’s qualifications to hold the premiership. The bone of contention here is whether Prayut’s previous role as head of the National Council for Peace and Order junta made him a state official. It is unconstitutional for a state official to be nominated for the premiership or to accept such a nomination.
The Election Commission accepted the Phalang Pracharat Party’s nomination of Prayut as its candidate for prime minister before the 24 March general elections. And the Office of the Ombudsman subsequently ruled that Prayut had not, as the junta head, been a state official because that post did not derive from or fall under the terms of any law; neither was he in that capacity subject to the supervision of any state organ. Whether or not the Constitutional Court will concur with this ruling remains to be seen.
On 18 September, the Constitutional Court will also start examining the testimonies of ten witnesses concerning the status of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, as a member of parliament. Thanathorn has been suspended from the House while the case concerning his qualifications remains under the court’s scrutiny.
Thanathorn has been accused of owning a magazine publishing firm when he stood for election as a party-list candidate for parliament. Ownership of any newspaper or media business disqualifies Thais from standing for election to parliament.
In fact Thanathorn is not the only one facing such legal troubles. Thirty other members of the House from opposition parties, and thirty-two members of the House from government parties, face similar probes. But the Constitutional Court has not suspended these other members of parliament from their duties.
These politicians failed to properly and entirely divest themselves of their numerous businesses before standing for election. The underlying problem in these cases is in many instances a technicality. It arises from the widespread practice of Thai firms’ registering memoranda of incorporation that list all conceivable business activities that they may undertake, including publishing. It is not that the firms in question were necessarily involved in publishing.
Should Thanathorn be found guilty, however, he will immediately lose his seat in the House. Worse, he may be charged with violating the election law and thus be subject to imprisonment from one to ten years and to a fine from 20,000 to 200,000 baht, as well as a suspension of his political rights for twenty years. A guilty verdict would practically end Thanathorn’s political career, leaving him disqualified from holding political office for two decades.
Such a verdict might also render unlawful Thanathorn’s endorsement of all Future Forward candidates in the March polls. Consequently, the parliamentary status of the party’s 80 members of parliament could be thrown into serious doubt.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. This first appeared in ISEAS Commentaries, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.