The Stability of Thailands Wafer-Thin Parliamentary Majority


Partyforumseasia: All over the world, traditionally stable party systems change into a collection of medium and small parties. As a consequence, the formation of governments is getting more complicated and takes more time after the elections. Clear majorities of dominant parties are getting rare, and even the British first-past-the-post election system, which was supposed to create stable majoritarian governments, is not working anymore in the UK itself.
The transition from a military government to a military-dominated coalition in Thailand is an extreme example. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has pulled all possible triggers to remain at the helm after calling an election which was supposed to start the return to a civilian government. The March 2019 election results were surprising in many ways. The traditional parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, lost half of their seats from the last parliament before the military rule. The biggest surprise was the success of the new Future Forward Party which denied Prayut’s new Palang Pracharat Party with only 116 seats and 24% of the vote the chance to form a clear majority coalition. But the former general cobbled together a thin majority nevertheless with the help of the Democrats and a string of smaller parties, altogether 18 of them. In June, Partyforumseasia has already discussed  the research results of Dr. Punchada Sirivunnabood, how public funding has contributed to the mushrooming of small parties in Thailand.

The remarkable part of this difficult coalition formation is that ten small parties most of which have only one elected member of Parliament have joined. And one of them, Mongkolkit Suksintaranont, leader of the Thai Civilised Party, has already left the new coalition on 13 August. That leaves the Prime Minister’s wafer-thin majority at only 253 seats out of 500 and could, in case the erosion continues, make the legislation a gamble.

The first defector’s explanation in front of the media was PM Prayut’s lapse in his oath of office. Freudian or not, he omitted the allegiance to the constitution and apologized in the meantime. But Prayut got away with it so far since the remaining leaders of the micro-parties declared their support as unconditional and lasting.

More democratically-minded commentators, including the leading academic observer, Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak from the Chulalongkorn University, see the first crack as a sign that the coalition won’t last very long. Their doubts are justified since the Election Commission had interpreted the rules already in a way which first allowed the micro-parties to enter the parliament. But many examples of narrow majority coalitions may teach otherwise. In a big majority, some dissent in policy issues does not matter. But if a coalition is threatened as such and close to losing its grip on power, the survival instinct of the members will prevail and foster cohesion. The spoils of power are much too attractive and will nearly always be stronger arguments than democratic principles. PM Prayut’s new cabinet has 19 ministers and 19 deputy ministers. And concerning incentives to single MPs to toe the government line there are more than enough ways to find a satisfying solution. The growth of the ruling coalitions in Indonesia’s democratic era shows how it works in practice. A commentary in the Bangkok Post on 14 August came with the headline “Tiny parties, giant power”. Rather true, the power to tip the scale comes with a reward and a price, especially in politics and especially in the current politics of Thailand.

Thai elections still haunted by Thaksin – Constitutional Court dissolves Thai Raksa Chart Party


Partyforumseasia: Calling it election fever would be an understatement. The long-anticipated general election on 24th March is stirring up emotions like never before in the country’s colorful election history. And, no surprise, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who is seeking election (since he assumed the premiership by ousting Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 it can not be called re-election) is preparing the ground to prevent a surge of the surviving and diversified Thaksin-loyalists surviving predominantly in the Pheu Thai Party, the third incarnation of the plutocrat’s original Thai Rak Thai Party.
The Nation daily published a survey of the election chances on 6th March, which forecasts Pheu Thai as the biggest possible winner:

Nation survey

The survey focuses on the 350 constituency seats in the mixed-member proportional system and does not include the possible results of the 150 party-list members. This new electoral system has been designed to limit the chances of bigger parties to dominate the 500-seat lower house. But party strategists know how to play the piano even if it is not tuned to provide a level playing field. The Thai Raksa Chart Party, founded by many Pheu Thai politicians only four months ago, was therefore widely seen as a mechanism to add party-list seats to Pheu Thai.
These dreams have been shattered yesterday, 7th March, by the decision of the Bolratana 2Constitutional Court to dissolve the party with immediate effect. The surprise move of nominating Princess Ubolratana as a prime ministerial candidate turned out to be too risky a strategy. The court deemed it unconstitutional because it abused the Royalty, supposed to be above politics,  for electoral advantage. To make sure that they don’t find another loophole, the 13 members of the TRC executive committee have been banned from politics for the next ten years.

Nervousness about a deeply divided electorate is rather understandable and only the third place in the Nation survey for the Phalang Pracharat Party which supports Prime Minister Prayut must irritate the military camp. Interesting as well are the continuing regional party preferences, the Thaksin camp still dominating in the North and North East, and the Democrat Party equally dominating Bangkok and the South. The real question will come up after the votes will be counted, when coalitions will be needed to form a majority in the lower house. The incompatibilities seem to be clearly visible at the moment, but parties and politicians have shown extreme flexibility in the past when the spoils of ministerial power are being up for grabs.

 

No Royal Prime Minister for Thailand!


Partyforumseasia: Was it a PR-coup and a calculated provocation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or simply a miscalculation? With obviously launched rumors that the just three months old Thai Raksa Chart Party was going to nominate a very important person as its nominee for Prime Bolratana 2Minister in the upcoming election on 24th March, the media attention was guaranteed. The bombshell exploded on the last possible date for the nomination last Friday, February 8, when Thai Raksa Chart’s leader Preechapol Pongpanit opened a brown envelope and presented as a nominee the former princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, the elder sister (67 years old) of King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Royal Prime Ministers are rare, but Bulgaria’s former king, Simeon II, was PM from 2001 to 2004, and Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia from 1955 to 1960. 

The political bombshell of Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy was the clash in Thai politics between the royalist and military camp and the still strong lingering support for ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, PM from 2001 to 2006, perfected money politics and secured faithful voters in the rural areas as the first Bangkok politician to take care of them. Multi-ethnic Thailand has more than 50% dialect speaking minorities which are sensitive to official neglect and reduced job opportunities. They were the key to Thaksin’s stunning electoral successes and the popularity of the serial re-incarnations of his original Thai Rak Thai party.

A special feature in the ongoing election campaign is the split of the Thaksin party reincarnations. It is a strategic move of his followers to maximize their chances in the new electoral system which is clipping the wings of bigger parties. Thai Raksa Chart is fielding 175 candidates, and many bigwigs of the other Thaksinite Pheu Thai Party have joined.

The coup triumph with the royal top candidate was short-lived. The King intervened within the day and declared his elder sister’s candidacy as highly inappropriate and even unconstitutional since she is still considered a part of the royal family though she renounced her title decades ago when she married an American. But divorced and back in Thailand, she has participated in royal ceremonial functions. A singer and TV presenter, she is also popular for chairing and promoting charities. But she is not known for any special qualifications in politics.

As a result of this highly theatrical political episode, the future of the Thai Raksa Chart Party may be threatened by dissolution. As a failed coup, if Thaksin has been behind, it will definitely push the candidacy of former general Prayut, the incumbent Prime Minister.

 

A New Multi-Party Democracy in Thailand?


Partyforumseasia: Since the Thai military ousted the Yingluck Shinawatra / Pheu Thai government in May 2014, party political activities were banned. Promises to re-establish democracy by holding elections were superseded by new promises and delays. YingluckBut junta leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, feeling the growing frustration of the prohibited voters, has finally announced that the election will be held “no later than February 2019”. This means that there is still a year for preparations on all sides of the broad political spectrum which includes the military and several supporters who want to prevent a return to the tumultuous contestation which triggered the military coup, and especially a return of the Shinwatra clan.

Since 1 March, in preparation of the election, the Election Commission has started to accept applications for new parties, after no less than 114 groups have expressed their interest to apply. By Friday, 2 March, 38 applications had been submitted with their party name and logo, among them many newcomers. More than any other country in the region and beyond, the Thai party scene has been volatile with ever changing parties and coalitions as well as “reincarnations” of parties dissolved or banned by the courts. Registration is possible until end of March, and the Election Commission will have another 30 days for vetting and approval.

The expected playing field for the upcoming election will see at least three distinct party types. One will support the continuation of military supervision and “law and order”. Observers believe that the acting Prime Minister has ambitions to continue, which would be possible even is he is not elected, by a provision in the military-drafted new constitution through appointment by parliament. PM Prayut is being supported by several new parties, namely the “Reform People Party”, the “For Thai Nation Party”, the “Public State Party”, and “The Great Mass of People Party”. The latter has been

Suthep
Thaugsuban

initiated by veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban, the controversial driving force behind the street turmoil in Bangkok in January 2014, to which he reportedly contributed funds from his own wealth. (see our related post “Who is funding Bangkok’s street protests” here LINK).

Another group will count on the new proportional representation system in the party law to get a few seats in the new parliament. Some of them might get cabinet posts as free-riders in case they are needed for a coalition government.

The third group may try to offer an alternative to the “old” parties. The chances of the oldest Thai political party, the Democrat Party, with its pro-establishment, though anti-military image might be difficult to gauge. Rumors that nearly 80 year-old Chuan Leekpai who was Prime Minister twice in the 1990’s would run again don’t sound too realistic. But the former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck still enjoy massive support from their former voters and try to be visible in the media. Be sure, though, that the military will do anything it takes to prevent them from returning.

YingluckThaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister 2001 – 2006
Yingluck Shinawatra, Prime Minister 2011 – 2014