“Uncle Tu’s Full House: The New Thai Senate under Military-Dominated Government” by Punchada Sirivunnabood

2019/44, 21 May 2019

The May 14th announcement in the Royal Gazette that King Vajiralongkorn had endorsed the 250 newly selected members of the upper chamber of Thailand’s parliament seems to ensure that the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party will form the next government.

This wholly appointed Senate consists of many friends and relatives of members of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta,  numerous individuals who served it as cabinet members and lawmakers, and top active-duty military commanders such as Army Chief Apirat Kongsompong. General Prayut Chan-ocha’s brother, General Preecha Chan-ocha, will be a member of the chamber.  These officers will join 105 additional active-duty or retired military and police officers, 18 former members of the junta’s cabinet, 89 former members of its National Legislative Assembly, five former members of its Constitutional Drafting Committees, 25 former member of National Strategy Committee, and 51 former members of its National Reform Council. Only 26 members of the new Senate will be women. Many analysts have criticized this pattern of naked patronage appointments as a tool to extend the junta’s power. And the new Senate is indeed expected to vote to allow NCPO leader Prayut,  or “Uncle Tu”, to return as premier.

The 2018 Organic Law on Upper House Elections specifies that 50 out of the 250 members of the Senate will be voted in by fellow applicants and nominees belonging to the same professional and social groups. This organic law divides professional groups into ten categories, including agriculturalists, teachers, doctors and people in the private sector. Each group has conducted its own voting process. The Election Commission has checked the backgrounds of the top 200 candidates, 100 from among candidates who applied on their own individually and another 100 from among those nominated by recognized organizations representing each professional group, and the NCPO has chosen 50 candidates from this list of 200 nominees as Senators and will keep another 50 names on a reserve list. This electoral process has cost up to 1,000 million baht.

Aside from these 50 senators, another 194 senators have been directly picked by NCPO and another six — including the Defence Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and the Commanders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Police — serve on an ex officio basis. This process means that the Senate is entirely appointed by the junta. Numerous analysts ask why, if the final decision on the selection senators is in the power of NCPO, the country had to spend millions to organize elections for some of the members of the Upper House.

In the selection of Thailand’s next prime minister, the Senate has been given considerable extra power. The 2017 charter states that, for a five-year period starting when the next parliament convenes, the 250 appointed Senators will join the 500 elected members of the Lower House to vote for the prime minister. In addition, the Lower House has a four-year term while the Upper House will be in office for five years. This means that the new Senate will be participate in the selection of at least two prime ministers. This would enable what will essentially be the NCPO junta’s government maintain its power for the next eight years.

In addition, for the next five years, the Senate also is empowered to jointly deliberate with the House of Representatives on any bill deemed to be related to national reform. And the Senate has the power to veto any bill on amnesty, as for political crimes, at joint meetings of the two Houses. So, if the opposition parties try to table a motion to submit any policy for parliamentary consideration and that policy is defined as a reform policy, the Senate will have the power to reject that bill. With this full house of friends and relatives in the Senate together with 132 parliamentary seats — from Phalang Pracharat (115 seats), the Action Coalition for Thailand (5), Palang Chart Thai (1), and 11 small parties (11) — it is likely that General Prayut will remain in charge as the government’s head and have wide-ranging powers in the parliament to challenge the opposition and to pass bills.

Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the 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.