PRIME MINISTER Prayut Chan-o-cha recently admitted to his “interest in politics”, which observers interpret as opting to become a political party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general election.
If General Prayut really wants to return as head of a post-election government, at the least he is guaranteed strong support from the 250-member Senate, which is to be appointed by the ruling junta – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Judging from the current Constitution, which came into effect in April 2017, the Upper House is designed to serve as a helping hand for a pro-NCPO government and a big obstacle to one that is anti-NCPO.
The first Senate under the new charter, which will serve a five-year term, will be entirely appointed by the junta. Although 50 out of the 250 members will be voted in by fellow applicants and nominees, they need to get their final approval from the NCPO. The junta will select the final 50 from a list of 200 candidates who get the highest number of votes from fellow applicants and nominees. People who want to become senators can apply directly to be voted by fellow applicants to get the first 100 candidates. Eligible organisations can also nominate their candidates to be voted on by fellow nominees, to get another 100 candidates.
Also, transitory provisions of the Constitution give the first Senate extra powers that certainly favour the NCPO while also making it hard for its rivals.
These include the power to vote along with the 500-member House of Representatives to select a prime minister in the event that the Lower House is unable to reach an accord over the matter.
For the first five years, the Senate also is empowered to jointly deliberate with the House of Representatives on any bills deemed to be related to national reform. And the Senate has the power to veto, at joint meetings of the two Houses, any bill on amnesty.
If a pro-junta political party forms the government after the election, the Upper House is likely to provide strong support during its rule. But if anti-junta parties win the election and gain political power, the Senate could become a stumbling block, making it difficult for that government to rule.
In the past, only MPs were allowed to vote in the selection of a prime minister. This time, if they fail to agree on who should become the new head of government, senators will be allowed to also join in the choosing. To be able to form a new government, the winner needs support from more than half of both Houses, or at least 376 parliamentarians.
Major political parties – including Pheu Thai and Democrat – have stressed that any party that could garner support from more than half of the House of Representatives, or 250 MPs, should be allowed to form the next coalition government. They said the voters’ mandate should not be distorted.
The senators are unlikely to back someone unrelated to the junta to become the next prime minister. And unlike the previous one, this Constitution does not set any deadline for the House to select a prime minister.
That means General Prayut, who heads the NCPO, could remain in his seat as the government head and have wide-ranging powers under Article 44 of the post-coup interim charter, for as long as election winners are unable to form a coalition administration.
Regarding the Senate’s power to jointly deliberate reform-related bills with the Lower House, a pro-NCPO government may interpret the Constitution in a way that their draft laws – even the budget bills – are regarded as relating to national reform. This way they could get support from the Upper House during parliamentary voting.
If he returns as prime minister, Prayut’s main concern in Parliament is likely to involve censure debates – as only the House of Representatives are involved in these and thus the Senate would not be able to offer him a helping hand.
The Senate will prove a major hurdle for a post-election government formed by anti-NCPO parties such as Pheu Thai, which some view as a proxy for former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Upper House members could seek joint deliberations for bills proposed by an anti-NCPO government on the grounds that they are related to national reform. Any disagreement over the matter would be decided by a joint committee chaired by the Senate speaker, according to the Constitution.
If they want, senators may also join forces with opposition MPs in voting down government-backed bills. And an embarrassing loss in Parliament over major legislation could result in the government being pressured to take responsibility.
Regarding the Senate’s power to veto amnesty bills, a pro-Thaksin coalition would find it more difficult to do what the Yingluck Shinawatra government did in 2013. At that time, government MPs managed to push through a law that would have offered blanket amnesty to all involved in recent political conflicts, including those facing corruption and murder charges. Parliament’s passage of the bill led to street protests, culminating in the military coup in May 2014.
The new charter states that support from two-thirds of both Houses, or at least 500 parliamentarians, is required to pass an amnesty bill.
In order to block a non-NCPO government, the junta needs to prevent either Pheu Thai or Democrat parties from winning more than half of the MP seats so that neither of them could quickly form a government without coalition partners. The junta’s goal is for Palang Pracharat Party, which is expected to nominate General Prayut as prime minister, to come second in terms of MP numbers.
If they can achieve that goal, the pro-junta party would have a better chance to form a coalition government, with support from the Democrats. Pheu Thai and Democrats have long been bitter enemies and are unlikely to work together.
It remains to be seen if the junta’s manoeuvring will result in the junta leader-cum-prime minister returning to power. But at least the senators they appoint will become a major unified force in Parliament and be able to influence politics after the election.