Appointed Senate has been designed to perpetuate junta rule, but it could also undermine it
The process to select a new Senate has caused widespread dismay among citizens desperate for transparency and public participation in politics.
Only 7,200 people from across the country have applied for posts in the upper house, far fewer than the 10,000 expected by the Election Commission (EC). The figure is especially disappointing given the huge public budget of Bt1.3 billion allocated for the selection process.
Yet whatever the number of applicants, the Senate selection remains one of the most serious mistakes made by a government in Thai political history. Rather than seeking qualified experts to scrutinise legislation with wisdom, dignity and integrity, the junta wants an obedient bloc to serve to perpetuate its power.
Worse still, rather than putting candidates to a national vote, the junta will handpick 250 nominees to sit in a Senate and oversee a democratically elected lower chamber.
According to the Constitution’s clauses for “democratic” transition, all members of the inaugural Senate, whose term is five years, will be appointed by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Of the 250 senators, 50 will be voted in by fellow applicants and 194 appointed by a selection committee, while the six remaining seats will go to the commanders-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, the Defence Ministry permanent secretary and the National Police chief.
Their main task will be to scrutinise bills before they become law. But this Senate has also been designed to play a role in selecting the prime minister. If the lower house is unable to reach agreement on a nominee after the election, the charter empowers senators to join the vote with MPs to select a PM.
This arrangement delivers a severe blow to hopes for democracy, since it hands appointed lawmakers the same power as elected MPs who have a mandate from the people.
A handpicked Senate is hardly unusual in Thai political history. In fact it wasn’t until the 1997 Constitution passed that Thailand elected all senators. Typically a mixed system of election and selection has prevailed. But never has an appointed Senate been handed the crucial role of helping pick the head of government.
Even with that power in the offing, fewer than expected applied.
Former constitution drafter Chartchai na Chiangmai said he thought the low number of applications was due to a lack of motivation among would-be candidates.
Many of them opted not to apply because it is the NCPO that will select 50 of the 200 candidates short-listed by fellow applicants from 10 professions.
“They see no motivation for them to apply. They are sceptical [and see] that in the end the NCPO may not appoint them,” Chartchai said.
Thanks to the low level of public participation and the opaque selection process, the junta will no doubt find 250 senators who will back its extended rule. Even more crucial, the junta has the voters in its pocket needed to secure a new head of government. Along with the 250 Senators, the pro-junta parties need only win 125 seats in the lower house to install their choice as the new prime minister of Thailand.
But the bad news for the new government is that the Senate has no authority to join the lower house in voting to pass laws. Hence the first Senate since the 2014 coup will not only be undemocratic, it will also jeopardise the stability of the new government.