'Cobra Phenomenon' Impacts Thai Politics

The gains by Thailand’s military-backed Palang Pracharat Party in the March 2019 general election are due in part to massive election rigging and manipulation by the junta, afforded by the 2017 constitution drafted with the acquiescence of the state apparatus, particularly the Election Commission.

However, credit must also go to Palang Pracharat's formidable and well-funded party organization which has been supplemented by many political “cobras” who defected from opposing parties, some of whom are influential veteran politicians with strong political bases across the country.

“Cobra” is a Thai metaphor for a politician who defies his party directives and votes for the opposing party or the opposite bench. Cash rewards for such turncoats reportedly are as high as US$1.3 million while a reward for voting for the military-nominated candidate can run to the tune of hundreds of thousands. The name “cobra,” in which politicians thus seek outright bribes to switch sides, dates back to the late 1990s.

The recent elections of the speaker and two deputy speakers of the lower house are cases in point. In the voting by secret ballot, some renegades from the pro-democratic front reportedly voted in favor of candidates nominated by the military camp.

Having embraced the cobras, however, Palang Pracharat didn’t have to wait long to experience their venom. Prominent among them are the turncoats from former parties allied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who now lives in self-exile. These cobras are known collectively as the “Sam Mitr” group translated as the “Three Buddies” faction who demanded a quid pro quo from Palang Pracharat and the junta in the form of future cabinet allocations.

The old dictum that there are no true friends and permanent enemies has never been more true than in the case of Thai politics. The would-be cobras saw ominous writings on the wall when parties allied to Thaksin were subjected to political and judicial harassment by the establishment. The deep state actors ultimately gained the upper hand when they successfully engineered the dissolution of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2006 and its surrogate successor, Palang Prachachon Party, in 2008 by the Constitutional Court.

The latest episode was the disbanding on dubious charges of the Thaksin-allied Thai Raksa Chart Party just days before the election. The Constitution Court hastily delivered the verdict without proper due process. The surviving Thaksin proxy party, Pheu Thai, had previously met the same fate as its predecessors when the government it led was brought down by a military coup in 2014 with the connivance of the elite establishment although it was spared from dissolution.

When the would-be cobras saw that their political parties allied to Thaksin could be dissolved with impunity by the junta-controlled state apparatus and that the governments led by Thaksin-nominated parties could easily be toppled by military coups, they were convinced that their interest would be better served by siding with the military-cum-establishment. Hence, when Palang Pracharat was formed to contest in the general election, the cobras flocked to it.

Some were also enticed by hefty cash incentives by the military party while some half-willingly switched on a promise that court litigation against them would be dismissed at the behest of the junta.

Such a cobra phenomenon occurred in 1997 when the Democrat Party tried to form a government coalition but was a few parliamentary votes short of the majority. The Prachakorn Thai Party led by Samak Sundaravej with its 18 MPs was regarded as a potential ally to provide the necessary votes to form the government. Ultimately, the Democrat Party and its allies were able to coax 12 MPs to defect from Samak’s party to join the coalition on the promise of cabinet positions and reportedly by cash incentives.

The word “cobra,” which later became a household word, was coined by the enraged Samak as a way of unceremoniously branding the 12 defecting MPs. One of these cobras was an influential politician who appeared in the US government’s blacklist of persons involved in the illicit drug trade.

The second cobra episode happened in 2008 when Samak, now the prime minister, at the time heading the Palang Prachachon-led government, was forced to resign by the court on a charge branded as absurd – accepting a gratuity for hosting a television cooking show, again upon the bidding of the establishment. Not long after, the Palang Prachachon Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court.

Samak must have sensed déjà vu when a number of cobras from from Palang Prachachon defected to form the Phumjai Thai Party and joined the opposition Democrat Party, giving the latter the needed votes to form a government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, the choice of the elite establishment at the time.

It is not surprising, therefore, to see the same Phumjai Thai Party, stuffed with veteran 2008 cobras, playing hardball as a prelude to joining Palang Pracharat to form the current government to ensure the continuation of authoritarian rule.

Going forward, Thai politics will to some degree be defined by the cobras, whose allegiance could once again oscillate. The current legislature may not see them switching camp as their former political parties have already signed them off. Be that as it may, the legislative maneuvering by the opposition bench could create the right tune to lure the cobras from the government bench to rise up and cross over the aisle to secretly vote for the opposition on certain issues, given the untenable balance of power in the Lower House.

Likewise, the government could also reach across the aisle to entice stalwart opposition MPs to become cobras and vote for its legislation through rewards of cooperation, if not cash.

The cobra phenomenon is not due to the failure of parliamentary democracy but to the absence of strong democratic institutions. Since democracy was enshrined in Thailand in 1932, it has never been allowed to succeed by the militarists and the oligarchs, who have had the propensity to resort to extra-constitutional measures such as coups d’etat and the imposition of martial law to suppress democratic forces.

Lack of party loyalty is a long-time spectacle in Thailand, going back to the 1980s when the country’s political system was known as “buffet democracy” – “I’ll take a little of this...a little of that…” Only with the real empowerment of the people and a strong democratic institution in which the politicians can be made accountable to the people, can the political cobras be eliminated from the Thai political scene.

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