Rigorous Vetting: The Senate Strikes Back?

Too early to conclude that Upper House has found a new independence apart from the Thai military

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (center) with the 15 cabinet ministers who resigned to join the senate, at Government House in Bangkok, May 2019. (Photo: Wikimedia, Bodafon58)

Termsak Chalermpalanupap

25 February 2020

The Thai Senate, which has long been sullied by perceptions that it is under the control of the military, has started to exert its authority of late. Earlier this month, the Senate voted down nominees for key posts who failed to pass its rigorous vetting of candidates. This came as a surprise, given that nearly all of the Upper House’s 250 members are appointed by the military. Could this be a harbinger a more independent and respectable Upper House of Thailand?  

The most high-profile casualty was Police Major General Preecha Charoensahayanon. He had been nominated to the post of secretary-general of the Anti-Money Laundering Office (AMLO), a watchdog and law enforcement authority under the direct supervision of the prime minister. In a secret vote held on 18 February, 185 of 250 senators rejected Preecha’s nomination. Only 11 senators supported him, and 13 others abstained (typically, not all senators are present during votes). The approval of the nomination had required a simple majority. The rejection was made more galling, by virtue of the fact that Preecha’s nomination had been approved by the cabinet of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha.

One senator, Somchai Sawaengkan, disclosed in an interview on 19 February that the chamber had compiled numerous documents and testimonials on Preecha, who is currently deputy secretary-general and acting head of the AMLO.  When grilled on the issue by presenters on the Inside Thailand network, Somchai declined to elaborate as to whether the materials had proved damaging to the nominee. He underscored, however, that all the senators had been granted complete access to the findings. As a result, they had based their votes on what they had learned.          

The Senate’s rejection of Preecha’s nomination may be the tip of the iceberg. Since the beginning of the year, the Upper House has shown some spine by asserting its power to confirm, or, more specifically, decline to confirm appointments to significant positions. Under the Constitution, the Senate has access to all confidential records of government, military and police personnel. Making good use of such privileged access as they carry out their vetting processes is a pragmatic and unquestionable way for the senators to gain some public respect.

“The litmus test of their independence will come when it is time to select a new prime minister”

In January, the Senate for the first time wielded its power as the vetting authority by turning down three of five nominees for the National Human Rights Commission. The three candidates were Lamai Manakan, secretary-general of Saiburi River Estuary Association; Vichai Srirat, a law lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University and Bounlerd Kachayutthidej, a freelance media expert. 

It did confirm the other two nominees: Preeda Kongpaen, manager of the Tai Community Foundation, and Suchart Setmalinee, head of the Peace Studies Programme at Payap University in Chiang Mai. The two nominees garnered 161 and 171 votes respectively. But even those totals underscored the willingness of significant numbers of senators to exercise independent judgement.

The second week of February also saw the Senate turn down a nominee to the Supreme Administrative Court. This is the highest court adjudicating in cases involving disputes between people and government agencies. Rachanan Dhananan, a retired ambassador, was rejected by 149 senators; only 36 senators supported him, and 33 others abstained.

Several days later, on 17 February, the Senate rejected one of five nominees to the powerful Constitutional Court. Changthong Opassiriewit, a junior judge on the Supreme Administrative Court, failed to pass muster with 139 senators. Only 52 senators supported his nomination, with 28 abstaining.

Changthong had been nominated by the Supreme Administrative Court to serve as a justice of the Constitutional Court after several senior judges in the former declined their nominations. It would well be that the senators who voted against Changthong wanted a more senior judge to fill such an important post.  At any rate, the Supreme Administrative Court will now have return to the drawing board to identify a new candidate.

Independence: too early to call
Taken together, do the recent votes in the Senate portend that Thailand’s military-appointed senators are taking their constitutionally independent roles more seriously? The answer: yes and no.

It is true that 244 of the 250 senators were practically hand-picked by the generals who staged the May 2014 coup. The generals were led by General Prayut and his lieutenant, General Prawit Wongsuwan.  The other six Senate seats are held on an ex-officio basis by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the Commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Police. 

In the balloting for the premiership last June, 249 senators joined 251 members of the House of Representatives in supporting Prayut. Dr Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, President of the Senate, followed political tradition and abstained.  Prayut’s rival for the premiership, Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Junangroogruangkit, received only 249 votes, all of them from opposition members of the Lower House. Not one senator voted for him. Similarly, when the government sought the urgent passage of the 2020 budget bill in January, the Senate took just two days to deliberate on and approve the bill. The legislation was passed by the Upper House, with 225 ‘yes’ votes and no dissenting votes cast.

These outcomes suggest that the Senate might be a mere rubber-stamp body. While the Senate has become more rigorous in digging into the personal backgrounds and performance records of nominees, it remains premature to conclude that a significant number of the appointed senators are taking their independent role more seriously. The litmus test of their independence will come when it is time to select a new prime minister, if – and when – Prayut has to step down.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/18

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