By: Pithaya Pookaman

After a day-long debate on the suitability and qualifications of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the joint parliamentary session on June 5th – in what was a foregone conclusion — handed him Thailand’s premiership with 500 votes out of a total 750 against 244 for Thanathorn Juangroongkit, the youthful leader of the Future Forward Party, a genuinely democratic party.

During the debate, pro-democracy lawmakers vainly punched into Prayuth’s technical disqualification as a candidate, his disdain for democratic norms, his lack of ethical values and his conspicuously rude public behavior. The lawmakers scrutinized the Senate as well, citing the body’s opaque selection system by a faceless group of people, and the legality of the upper body in the voting process of the prime minister, who heads the lower house.

Prayuth will now proceed to form his Cabinet, which will have to include members from the parties that supported him on the basis of the mutual agreement reached prior to the parliamentary vote. He had benefitted from the electoral gains by the military-backed Palang Pracharat Party which were due in part to election rigging of unprecedented scale as well as manipulation by the junta, afforded by the constitution with the acquiescence of the state apparatus, particularly the Election Commission.

The real kingmaker was the 250-member Senate, which had previously been handpicked by the junta, which formed Prayuth’s core support.  With the Senate votes safely in the pocket, the Palang Pracharat Party only needed 10 more House votes to clinch the prime ministerial post.  However, when other parties threw in their lot for Prayuth as a sure bet, Prayuth had more than what he bargained for.

The pro-military front led by Palang Pracharat had the tacit support of the Democrat Party, Phumjai Thai Party, Chart Thai Party, Chart Pattana Party and other smaller parties. The Palang Pracharat-led coalition, with a combined strength of more than 250 House MPs, was supplemented by the Senators to get Prayuth elected in a joint parliamentary sitting to give Prayuth government a razor-thin majority in the Lower House.

Meanwhile, all seven pro-democracy parties, dominated by Pheu Thai and Future Forward Party, closed ranks to nominate Thanathorn, a rising star in the public imagination, to challenge Prayuth. The pro-democracy alliance’s overriding agenda was to prevent the continuation of authoritarian rule by Prayuth, who led the coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. 

Many small and medium parties including the Democrat Party and Phumjai Thai Party were fervent in their opposition to the continuation of junta rule during their election campaign.  However, the lure of cabinet positions and cash incentives appear to have been too much for them to resist.

The parliamentary victory for Prayuth and the pro-military front must also be attributed to the mass defection of politicians from the pro-democracy front, particularly from Pheu Thai Party and the defunct parties allied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who now lives in self-exile. These politicians are commonly referred to as “political cobras,” a metaphor for turncoats or politicians who defy their party directives and vote for opposing party or the opposite bench in the Parliament.  Cash rewards for the cobras reportedly can be anywhere from US$1 million to US$4 million whereas rewards for voting for military-dominated bench seats can run to the tune of hundreds of thousands US dollars.

Most Thai people already saw the writing on the wall when the 2017 junta-crafted constitution was bulldozed through a national referendum without public debate. One pro-military politician boasted that the constitution was custom-tailored for Palang Pracharat as a vehicle for Prayuth to serve another term.

The constitution was written with two main objectives: to secure the continuation of the authoritarian regime which took power by military coup in 2014, and to prevent the Pheu Thai Party backed by billionaire exile and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from coming to power again.  The constitution provides for the wholly-appointed 250 member Senate and election laws that favor smaller parties.

The key to power is the senate, appointed by the junta, which votes en masse for the military-backed prime ministerial candidate.  No less important, the senate serves as a rear guard to ensure the junta’s stability and longevity.  As long the government has a majority in the Lower House, the government bench will not have much difficulty in passing its legislation.  However, the senate’s role becomes indispensable if and when the military loses its the majority in the House.

That nearly came to pass as the Election Commission jockeyed the vote into a Palang Pracharat majority of splinter parties. If indeed it had become a minority government, the senate’s power would negate an opposition house’s ability to determine budget spending. Moreover, the government can also pass or negate any reform laws through the votes of the Senate as provided by the present constitution. 

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

The 2017 constitution, together with the constitutionally safeguarded state apparatus appointed by the junta, will ensure the stability of the elected government headed by duly elected Prayuth.  The opposition, which is to be led by the Pheu Thai Party, would face an uphill battle to advance a democratic agenda or to undermine the Prayuth government.

On the downside, since the Prayuth-led coalition will have to share power with 19 other parties, including the Democrat Party and Phumjai Thai Party, it can be voted out of power by no-confidence vote if any of its coalition members become cobras and cross the aisle in the opposite direction.  In such a scenario, the Senate cannot be relied upon to vote Prayuth back to power due to constitutional constraint.  Furthermore, Prayuth wouldn’t have the arbitrary power provided by Article 44 of the Interim Constitution of 2014 to suppress democratic forces or to protect himself from legal repercussion.

Although the junta gains some degree of legitimacy through the electoral process, however flawed, Prayuth’s legacy as an offender of human rights and his disdain for democratic norms will not earn him much respect and trust from the Thai people or the world community.

Pithaya Pookaman is a retired Thai ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.