“The Return of Cut-Throat Money Politics in Thailand” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/105, 10 December 2019

The government of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha narrowly averted yet another crisis in the House of Representatives on 4 December — this time with support from 10 defectors from the opposition. The incident, however, accentuated the vulnerability of Thailand’s ruling coalition of 18 parties, but just 254 seats in the 500-member House.
On 27 November, the government failed to block an opposition measure in the House calling for the creation of an ad hoc committee to study the impact of the use of absolute administrative power under Section 44 of the Interim Constitution of 2014 during the five years of military rule that ended earlier this year. The measure passed by 234-230. Six members of the House from the government side, all from the Democrat Party, voted with the opposition.

The government immediately called for a “recount”, as permitted under the House’s rules of procedure when the margin of difference in a vote is 25 votes or fewer. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai then ruled that members of parliament absent during the original vote could take part in the recount, to be done through a roll-call.

The opposition objected, insisting that only those 464 members who had taken part in the first vote be called upon to declare their preferences a second time. Permitting those who were absent earlier to take part would be tantamount to a “revote”, which is wrong and unlawful. But the government side persisted in wanting to hold the recount as Chuan had ruled. All opposition members of the House then walked out to show their disagreement with the government. The walkout forced the speaker to end the session, as it now lacked a quorum of at least 249 members.

On 28 November, opposition members once again boycotted a session of the House because the government side wanted to try yet again to hold a recount on the earlier measure in the manner that Chuan had ruled permissible. As a result of this boycott, the government side could not mobilise enough members of the House to form a quorum, and the House failed to hold a session for the second time in two days.

On 3 December, on the eve of a third showdown in the House on the proposed recount, coalition leaders held a dinner meeting to show their unity. This event brought several surprises. The first surprise was the participation of two members of the House who had earlier quit the coalition government to form their “independent opposition”. They now seemed happy to return to the government fold. A bigger surprise was Prime Minister Prayut’s dramatic profession of love and respect for his two elders General Prawit Wongsuwan and General Anupong “Pok” Paochinda. He told the leaders of government parties at the dinner that he and his two elder brothers would continue to work hard together to move Thailand forward. And Prayut confidently predicted that the House meeting on the following day would go smoothly.

The “3 P Brothers” were instrumental in seizing government power from the elected Phuea Thai Party-led government on 22 May 2014. Prayut, who at the time of the coup was the Army commander, became leader of the National Council for Peace and Order. In the years that followed, and while leading the junta, Prayut used the absolute administrative power granted to him under Section 44 of the interim constitution altogether 206 times.

The opposition wanted to study the impact of these orders. This study might recommend repeal of orders that are undemocratic. Repealing orders issued under Section 44 that have the status of law will require legislation and thus support in both the House and the Senate. In other words, the opposition will not be able to repeal any of those latter Section 44 orders without support of the government and the junta-appointed Senate.

At first there was some uncertainty about the government’s ability to form a quorum in the House on 4 December and thus to hold its recount vote on the measure. Two Phalang Pracharat Party members of the House had recently lost their parliamentary status, two other members of the House on the government side were on sick leave, and another overseas. This meant that only 249 members of the House from coalition parties — exactly enough to form a quorum, if all of them showed up — were available.

Miraculously, however, 259 members of the House were present in parliament for the recount this time. Ten House members, from four opposition parties, stayed in the chamber to help form the quorum; they ignored their leaders’ call for a third walkout. The session saw the proposal to form the controversial ad hoc committee rejected by a vote of 244 – 5, with 6 abstentions.

The opposition vehemently cried foul, accusing the government side of “bribing” opposition members of the House to help form the quorum. At least one opposition leader was on record claiming that the amount of the bribes was in “the eight digits” — or at least 10 million baht!

Bad and good precedents

The coalition government’s swift tactic of calling for a “recount” after losing the vote in parliament on 27 November sets a bad precedent. The government side was clearly at fault for failing to deploy enough members of the House to defeat the opposition’s proposal, even though it could have foreseen that voting on that proposal was imminent, the first time around. Many of the House members on the government side, especially those who are concurrently cabinet ministers, may not take their House duties so seriously.

On the other hand, the six Democrats who voted with the opposition on 27 November set a good precedent by voting on their party’s oft-stated principles — including opposing all forms of dictatorship — instead of blindly toeing what was the party line in this instance. Four of those six Democrats again voted for opposition proposal on 4 December; the other two chose to abstain. The fifth vote in favour of the proposal on that day came from a member of the Future Forward Party.

Likewise, those 10 House members from the four opposition parties who helped form the 4 December quorum could also claim to be acting on principle. They wanted the House to move on, instead of being blogged down over the rather academic issue of studying the impact of the use of Section 44 of the former junta’s interim constitution. Next on the House agenda is a more important proposal, on the formation of a House ad hoc committee to study ways and means of amending the 2017 Constitution.

As things stand now, there is no guarantee that those who have switched sides will continue to stay loyal to their new paymasters when crucial measures come up for parliamentary votes in the future.

The final vote on the 2020 budget bill will take place on 8-9 January 2020, and the opposition’s motion of no-confidence against the entire Prayut cabinet is expected to reach the House in February.

Consequently, behind-the-scenes lobbying on the part of the two rival camps in the House to recruit “defectors” will intensify.

Old-style cut-throat money politics is thus likely to return, and to retard political development in Thailand.

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