“A Dilemma of Political Survival in Thailand” by Supalak Ganjanakhundee

2019/106, 11 December 2019

The decision of Thailand’s ruling regime, under the leadership of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, to bring ‘money politics’ back into parliament in order to ensure the regime’s survival will leave the country trapped in a maze.
Hinting that it was interested in joining Prayut’s coalition government, the opposition New Economy Party (NEP) appears to have confirmed allegations that the ruling Phalang Pracharat Party paid sums in the eight-digit range, in Thai baht, to opposition MPs to induce them to oppose a proposal for an ad hoc committee to scrutinize the impact of the administration of the National Council for Peace and Order junta during 2014-2015.. Four out of the six NEP MPs were among the 10 opposition MPs who voted with the government last week to authorize a new parliamentary vote on the measure. Other MPs to cross the aisle included three from the Phuea Thai Party, two from the Future Forward Party and one from Prachachat Party. These three parties announced that they would investigate whether their MPs had received money from the government to change sides.

In reacting to this episode, local media and political observers turned to an analogy from Aesop’s fable about on the farmer and the snake. In its Thai version, this snake is a cobra, or ngu hao. The cobra bit the farmer who gave it warmth on a cold day, teaching him a lesson in amorality. But, in Thai politics, betrayal over matters of ideology or political platforms means nothing.  Politicians will take any side, depending on their personal interests, even while saying that they had to betray their parties for the benefit of the country.

Thai parliaments have seen such behavior frequently since the second half of the late twentieth century, when the military and its allies in the bureaucracy controlled governments with support of politicians who sought accesses to power in pursuit of economic gain.

In April 1987, media reported that the government of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda had paid 20 million baht to 15 opposition MPs so that they would withdraw their support for a motion of censure against the premier. Like Prayut, Prem was a retired military officer who held office with military backing and had never run in an election.  The parties to which two of these MPs belonged later expelled them, resulting in the termination of their status as MPs. But the two men were re-elected in by-elections. They claimed that their victories in those by-elections confirmed that voters approved of their betrayal of their parties.

This incident raised questions about whether political parties had too much power over the MPs. This same issue had been addressed every time that Thailand drafts a new constitution, but it remains unresolved.

In the middle of 1990s, the term “mobile automated teller machine” became a metaphor for political leaders who could quickly transfer money to members of parliament at the time of votes in the parliament.  The term ngu hao  was used in politics for the first time in November 1997, when Democrat Party Secretary General Sanan Kachonprasart managed to have 12 out of 15 Thai Citizens Party MPs defect to vote for Democrat leader Chuan Leekpai in his bid to become be prime minister. Chuan could not have become the prime minister for the second time, after his earlier 1992-1995 premiership, without the Thai Citizens Party MPs betrayal of their party.

Such episodes typified the period in which Thailand’s parliament was nothing more than what Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit have called a ‘business clearing house’, in which money was occasionally distributed to influence particular votes.
The drive for political reform that resulted in the 1997 Constitution sought to empower and institutionalize political parties at the expense of individual politicians, so that the latter could not take stances against the parties’ line. The 1998 Political Party Law also made clear that the MPs must comply with their parties’ resolutions, at risk of expulsion from both their parties and the parliament.
Unlike the 1997 charter, the military-sponsored 2017 Constitution and its organic laws weakened political parties and gave more freedom to individual MPs. While their parties have the power to expel MPs, this does not strip them of their status as MPs if they are able to join a new party within 30 days. In the most recent episode, then, opposition parties could expel their members who voted in support of the Prayut government, but parties in the ruling coalition could easily recruit them and thus benefit from those expulsions.
Of course, the ruling coalition faces the same dilemma.  Six members of the Democrat Party voted against the government’s line, and other government MPs may do the same in the future, depending on their selfish interests.
As money politics matters, the Prayut government has no choice but to spend more to hire cobras for its own camp. Unless they want to hand these snakes cash, coalition parties may need to relinquish cabinet seats and other positions in the administration to members of opposition parties willing to switch camps.
When money is used, the question is, what is the source of the funds? Unless Prayut and other government leaders use their own money, they may either divert government resources or seek funds from supportive business interests to buy the cobras. But there are legal restrictions on both means of securing funds. If the government considers amending the law to legitimize spending in order to preserve its hold on power, Thai politics will go nowhere.  
Mr Supalak Ganjanakhundee is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and the former editor of The Nation (Bangkok).

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.