2019/32, 22 March 2019
None of the three strongest parties contesting Sunday’s general elections in Thailand will be able to win a majority of the seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. And yet, because the premiership is at stake, none of them wants to play second fiddle to either of its two principal rivals. As many as 81 parties fielding altogether 14,000 candidates — 2,900 of them on party lists— are vying for the 500 House seats. In such a competitive race, none of the top three parties is expected to win 200 seats in the House, let alone the 251 seats needed to achieve a majority.
After voting ends at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, the Election Commission will have 60 days to certify all election results, including allocation of the 150 House seats among party-list candidates. A party will need about 80,000 votes, drawn from those cast for its constituency candidates, to secure one of these 150 seats.
Lawsuits against some winning candidates alleging violations of the complicated election laws and the disqualification of some of those winners can be expected. In these cases, by-elections will be held as soon as possible.
At least 95 per cent or 475 seats of the 500-member House must be filled before the opening session of the new parliament. That will be a joint session, with the 250 members of the Senate also participating. The king or his representative will preside over the opening ceremony, which must be held within 15 days of the final certification of results—7 June, at the latest.
A joint parliamentary sitting of the 250 appointed senators — handpicked by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta — and the 500 elected House members will also select the prime minister. Assuming full membership in both of the chambers, the minimum winning majority is 376 votes.
A Three-Cornered Fight
Three possible coalitions of parties may seek to determine the choice of Thailand’s next prime minister.
The Phuea Thai Party of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is widely seen as the strongest party contesting Sunday’s elections. If it wins the largest number of House seats, it can claim priority in trying to secure the premiership for its first-choice candidate Sudarat Keyuraphan, a 57-year-old mother of three.
“Coalition One” will enjoy the support of Phuea Thai’s remaining “offspring parties” with seats in the House. Other anti-junta parties, such as Future Forward the and Thai Liberal Party, may also accept Phuea Thai’s leadership, if the “price” is right.
Neutral parties such as Bhumjai Thai, Chat Thai Phattana and Chat Phattana have no political enemies; they can also join “Coalition One”. They are determined to be on the winning side, regardless of who is the leader.
“Coalition One” therefore has the potential to command a majority in the House. But it is likely to fall short of securing the necessary minimum winning majority of 376 votes in a joint parliamentary sitting without support of either of its two main rivals and a number of senators.
Army Commander General Aphirat Khongsomphong, who is also secretary to the NCPO, has lashed out against Sudarat and leaders of the other anti-junta parties who are calling for drastic cuts in military spending, for military reforms, for ending compulsory military service, and for transparency in arms procurement. He considers this campaign rhetoric insulting and unpatriotic.
The Army chief clearly does not want to see the return to power through “Coalition One” of proxies for former Prime Minister Thaksin, in a repeat of the latter’s success in making his youngest sister Yingluck Thailand’s first female prime minister in 2011.
If “Coalition One” fails, it will be the turn of the Democrat Party, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. This party, the oldest in Thailand, has declared that it will neither join any Phuea Thai-led coalition nor support the return of junta leader and incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha to power.
The Democrat Party can team up with other neutral parties and create a group of about 200 seats in the House — still a rather weak minority. Future Forward and the Thai Liberal Party, the two vocal anti-junta parties, would just ignore “Coalition Two”.
However, Abhisit has left open the possibility of working with the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party, if — a very big “if” — the latter abandons Prayut and supports him for the premiership.
Phalang Pracharat is likely to be third in line. Its campaign manager Somsak Thepsuthin has expressed concerns that his party is facing an uphill battle to win up to 120 House seats. And if it is badly defeated by both the Phuea Thai and Democrat Parties, its right to take the lead in forming a new government with Prayut as the prime minister will be in jeopardy.
Phalang Pracharat can only count on support of all neutral parties and of the Action Coalition for Thailand led by Suthep Thaugsuban, one of Thaksin’s mortal foes. Even with that support, “Coalition Three” would be the smallest of the three possible coalitions, with fewer than 200 House seats. Such a coalition will be too weak to survive in the House, where a simple majority of 251 votes can block all government bills and can even topple a government in a no-confidence motion.
“Coalition Three” will need support of one of its two main rival parties in order to enhance the legitimacy of Prayut’s candidacy for the premiership. But how to win that support? The leaders of Phueua Thai and the Democrats have rejected Prayut, dismissing himself as an authoritarian failure.
Senators to the Rescue?
Since the NCPO will choose the 250 member of the Senate, the latter will come under immense pressure to toe the junta’s line and vote for Prayut.
Every senator, like every member of the House, will vote openly during the parliamentary session to select the prime minister. If all the 250 senators vote en bloc for Prayut, the situation will be problematic, to say the least. In fact, such “mindless” voting may well be unconstitutional. Nevertheless, with the support of all 250 appointed senators, “Coalition Three” will need the support of just 126 House members to have the 376 votes to win the premiership for Prayut.
But what sort of half-baked democracy will Thailand have, when appointed senators can overrule a larger number of elected representatives of the people?
Until the coronation of the king, scheduled for 4-6 May, all Thais and all parties would definitely want to see peace and order in the country. But after the historic ceremony, anything can happen if Prayut indeed retains the premiership under questionable circumstances.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre and a member of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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.