Reason to smile: Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo: Reuters
Asian Angle
by Dr Pithaya Pookaman
Asian Angle
by Dr Pithaya Pookaman

Reality bites in Thailand as ‘political cobras’ return Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha

  • Prayuth Chan-ocha beat his pro-democracy rival 500 votes to just 244, with help from a hand-picked Senate and a coalition of allied politicians who traded campaign promises for cosy cabinet positions
Thailand’s General Prayuth Cha-ocha has been returned for another term as prime minister after beating his anti-military rival Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit in this week’s joint parliamentary ballot, 500 votes to 244.

While Prayuth far surpassed the 376 votes needed out of the 750 from the lower House of Representatives and the Senate combined, his victory came after a long and heated parliamentary debate over the pro-military candidate’s suitability for the top job, the military’s opaque selection of the Senate, and legalities around the upper house’s role in the prime ministerial voting process.

Indeed, Prayuth’s victory was a foregone conclusion for many. He benefited from the electoral gains of the military backed Palang Pracharat Party, due in part to election rigging and manipulation of unprecedented scale by the junta, which was made possible by the constitution and acquiescence of the state apparatus, particularly the Election Commission.
But the real kingmaker was undoubtedly the 250-member Senate that the junta hand-picked before this week’s vote, and was stacked with a core support base for Prayuth. With those votes safely in the pocket, the prime minister’s Palang Pracharat Party only needed 10 more in the lower house to win the country’s leadership. Add a few hundred more lawmakers aligned with the military, and the result was a landslide with a majority in both houses.
Thai parliamentary election results. Photo: SCMP

Prayuth will now proceed to form his cabinet, which is expected to include members from the parties that backed his candidacy and struck deals ahead of the parliamentary vote.

Palang Pracharat Party had tacit support from the Democrat Party, Phumjai Thai Party, Chart Thai Party, Chart Pattana Party and other smaller parties. This coalition of more than 250 House MPs was supplemented by the hand-picked Senators – reaching a grand total of 500 potential votes.

Meanwhile, all seven pro-democracy parties, dominated by Pheu Thai and Future Forward Party, closed ranks to nominate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a rising star of Future Forward, to challenge Prayuth for the prime ministership.
The alliance had one goal in mind: prevent the continuation of authoritarian rule under Prayuth, who in 2014 led the military junta that toppled the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

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Members of the parliament representing military-backed Palang Pracharath party raise their hands approving the nomination of Prayuth Chan-ocha as Thailand's prime minister. Photo: AP

If nothing else, this week’s parliamentary vote revealed the decadency of Thai politicians, who would abandon their principles and renege on campaign pledges without scruples in exchange for Cabinet posts and personal gain.

Many small and medium parties, including the Democrat Party and Phumjai Thai Party, were blatant in their opposition to Prayuth during the election campaign. But the lure of Cabinet positions and cash incentives by the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party proved too much for them to resist.

Beyond politicians’ self-serving agendas, Prayuth and the pro-military front’s victory must also be attributed to the mass defection from the pro-democracy front, particularly from Puea Thai party and those allied to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in self-exile.

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These politicians are commonly referred to as “political cobras”, a metaphor for turncoats or lawmakers who defy party directives and vote for the opposing side. Rewards for the turncoat “cobras” were reportedly worth anywhere between US$1 and US$4 million, while just voting for the military-dominated bench could have earned a tidy few hundred-thousand dollars.

Most Thai people already saw the ominous writing on the wall when the 2017 junta-crafted constitution was bulldozed through the national referendum without public debate. Even a pro-military politician had shamelessly boasted that the constitution was custom tailored for the military-nominated party as a vehicle to secure Prayuth another term.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, speaks during a news conference at the parliament in Bangkok. Photo: Reuters

The constitution was written with two main objectives: to secure the continuation of the authoritarian regime that took power by military coup in 2014, and to prevent Puea Thai party from coming to power again. The constitution provides for election laws that favour smaller parties and the wholly appointed 250 member Senate, which would then vote en masse for the next prime ministerial candidate.

No less important, the Senate would also serve as a rearguard for the military-backed government to ensure its stability and longevity. As long as the government has a majority in the lower house, a compliant Senate will help the passing of legislation.

Conversely, if the government does not hold the majority in the lower house, the Senate’s role becomes just as indispensable. Not only can minority government pass laws of any reformatory nature through a majority in the Senate, but it is the upper house that approves public spending if the lower house fails to pass a draft budget.

Additionally, in a scenario where a minority government is forced to resign by no-confidence vote in the lower house, the Senate has the power to elect a prime minister nominated by the military, thereby ensuring the continuity of the authoritarian rule.

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Uttama Savanayana, the Palang Pracharat Party leader, which led a pro-military coalition to win the 2019 election and prime ministership. Photo: Reuters

In short, the current constitution is designed to serve an authoritarian regime, whether it is a majority government or a minority government.

Together with the constitutionally safeguarded state apparatus, appointed by the junta, this new constitution ensures the stability of the elected government headed by Prayuth. The opposition, led by Puea Thai party, now faces an uphill battle in advancing any kind of democratic agenda or undermining Prayuth’s administration, which is backed by the militarists and much of Thailand’s elites.

In addition to cementing the junta’s authoritarian regime, Prayuth’s victory awards him some degree of legitimacy at home and abroad. But his legacy as a notorious offender of human rights and his disdain for democratic norms will not earn him much respect or trust from the international community.

It remains to be seen if the incoming regime can move the country forward rather than backwards, which was where we left off with Prayuth’s government before the March 24 election.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Chile, and Ecuador. He was also a former vice-minister of Natural Resources and Environment. He resides in Bangkok. He is also a member of the Puea Thai party. This article represents his personal views.