“Talking Past One Another in the Thailand’s Policy Debate” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/64, 25 July 2019

On 25 July, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha presented to the Thai parliament his 35-page policy document, covering 12 priority areas and addressing 12 urgent issues.
However, the ensuing debate, which is likely to continue until 27 July, has seen the seven opposition parties pay little attention to contents of the new government’s government policy. Instead, they are zeroing in on Prayut’s qualifications and integrity and those of some ministers with dubious pasts. This is the prelude to a no-confidence motion against Prayut’s cabinet, which is expected to come sooner rather than later.

In fact Prayut’s qualifications and integrity have once again come under formal scrutiny in a case filed by the opposition parties with the Constitutional Court.  Prayut, while Army chief, led a coup to topple the Phuea Thai-led coalition government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014. He subsequently headed a military government, which oversaw the drafting of the 2017 constitution.

The opposition parties have contended that having been the coup leader and then head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, Prayut was a “state official” who, under Section 181 of the constitution, is prohibited from holding political positions.

The NCPO ceased to exist on 16 July, after Prayut led the members of his cabinet in taking their oaths of honesty and allegiance in an audience with King Vajiralongkorn.

Soon after, US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo sent a message which Prayut took as positive. It stated in part, “The United States looks forward to working with the newly formed Royal Thai Government to deepen the alliance and partnership between our two nations…” He added, “The U.S.-Thailand alliance remains strong, and we continue to support Thailand’s role as a regional leader, including the chairmanship of ASEAN this year.” The US Secretary of State has plans to be in Bangkok for the ASEAN-US ministerial meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum later this month.

At the very least Pompeo’s statement indicates the Trump administration’s acknowledgement of the change of government in Thailand after five years of military rule.

Prayut’s growing self-confidence

Whatever criticisms the opposition parties level during the policy debate are unlikely to dent Prayut’s self-confidence or determination to move on.

The prime minister’ policy document was circulated to the media on 21 July. Its theme is transforming Thailand into a developed country in the twenty-first century. It was based chiefly on the 20-year National Strategy for 2018-2037, which under the constitution shall bind all Thai government administrations until that latter year.

First among the 12 priority areas noted in the document is protecting and honouring the monarchy. Occupying the fourth priority area – which is unusual, since foreign policy has seldom been given such a high priority – is enhancing the role of Thailand on the world stage, as well as promoting its leading role in ASEAN and as the ASEAN chairman in 2019.

Anti-corruption comes last on the list of priorities, even though the widespread corruption in government and military circles has always been among leading public concerns in Thailand.

Among the 12 urgent issues, the Prayut government’s policy document simply mentions problems to be addressed. It skirts mention of solutions and of timeframes for achieving them. The two most urgent issues are people’s livelihood and the improvement of social welfare systems to promote the quality of life.

Subsidies and income guarantees will be provided to cultivators of rice, natural rubber, cassava, oil palm, sugar cane and maize. These will replace large-scale government purchases of such commodities from farmers at high prices. The document also calls for increasing the productivity of labour through rises in the minimum wages and controls on the prices of consumer goods.
Apart from the average of 3,300 billion baht needed for each budget year, no other specific numbers are given; that would raise questions about sources of government revenue necessary to fund the realisation of these goals.

Perhaps the most intriguing urgent issue, the last on the list, concerns support for study of, and for soliciting public opinions on, amendment of the constitution, particularly procedures for constitutional amendment.

One of the rules that opposition parties decry as undemocratic is the need for the support of at least one half of the 500 members of the House of Representatives and the 250 members of the Senate, including at least one-third of the latter, for acceptance of proposed constitutional amendments for further consideration.  This makes it virtually impossible to change the constitutional provision giving the 250 senators hand-picked by the junta votes in the selection of prime ministers during the five years of their tenure.

In the selection of the prime minister on 5 June, 249 senators — all except Senate President Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, who abstained — joined 251 members of the House of Representatives from the 19 government coalition parties in voting for Prayut. He thus defeated the opposition parties’ candidate, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Future Forward Party, who received 244 votes.

Prayut has stated that he supports efforts to better Thai legislation, including the constitution. In fact his policy document includes an annex listing 15 new laws that his government intends to enact.
However, it is doubtful if he supports ending the role of senators in selecting the prime minister. For the senators constitute the single largest voting bloc in the parliament on which he can count on for support, should another vote to select a prime minister in the next five years prove necessary.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in 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.