The 2017 Constitution provides for the election of a Prime Minister under Section 159 and Section 272. The charter provides for an exception within 5 years of the first sitting under Section 272. This specifies that a vote on Prime Ministerial candidates being considered under Section 159 takes place during a joint session of the National Assembly including the House of Representatives and the Senate. This will take place in due course once speakers have been confirmed for both houses and duly endorsed by the Thai King. This leaves the Prayut Chan ocha, as the candidate for the office put forward by the Palang Pracharat Party and supported by a range of other parties and the Thai Senate, on track to be elected as the first prime minister under the new constitution.
Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and legal expert Wissanu Krea-ngam this week predicted that Thailand will have a new prime minister elected by a joint sitting of the National Assembly by the end of May. The new Thai parliament commences on May 22nd and will be opened by the Thai King on May 24th. Despite the political maneuverings and speculation this week, which saw calls on the Bhumjaithai Party to throw its weight behind the alliance of parties involving Pheu Thai and the Future Forward Party, it appears that key provisions of the 2017 Constitution allow for a joint sitting of the Parliament to elect a prime minister from the party lists on this occasion. In this respect, the incumbent, Prayut Chan ocha, looks like he already commands the votes needed.
The new Thai parliament will meet next week on May 22nd, exactly 5 years since the 2014 coup. So far, 498 of the 500 MPs elected to sit in the lower house of the parliament, the House Of Representatives, have been confirmed by Thailand’s election commission. On Sunday 12th May, the Royal Gazette, the official publication of the Thai state, confirmed that a royal decree had been issued convening the first session of parliament, in accordance with Section 121 of the 2017 Thai Constitution. This specifies that the new parliament will meet within 15 days of the results of the election being announced. This occurred on May 9th. It is reported that the newly crowned Thai monarch, King Vajiralongkorn or Rama X, will preside over an opening ceremony which will inaugurate a new era in Thai politics on Friday May 24th.
New senators approved by the King on Tuesday
On Tuesday The Thai King approved a submitted list of 250 senators, selected by a committee, who will play a critical role in the democratic process that will take place within the new assembly or parliament comprising of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
After the opening of the new parliament on May 24th, the next order of business will be the election of speakers for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. These will then be submitted for approval to the King.
Speculation about rival coalitions in the lower house of Parliament has been intense
In the last few weeks, there has been intense speculation on the makeup of any new government with talk of rival factions or coalitions being built around the former ruling Pheu Thai Party and the new breakthrough Palang Pracharat Party seen as supportive of the current Thai premier, former army leader and leader of the 2014 coup, Prayut Chan ocha.
This new party achieved the largest number of votes in the election and commands 115 seats in the lower house. It has the confirmed support of a further 16 MPs at least, from very small parties and the Action Coalition Of Thailand Party (ACT) associated with former street protest leader, Suthep Thaugsuban.
Former ruling Pheu Thai Party pushing a 7 party block with 245 seats out of 498
The opposition bloc comprises of the former ruling Pheu Thai Party and the other breakthrough Future Forward Party which has promised radical opposition to the existing regime and the 2017 Constitution itself. This party is lead by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and co founder Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a law professor at the prestigious Thammasat University. The two parties have formed a coalition of seven parties with a combined number of seats currently standing at 245. This leave it 6 votes short of a majority in the lower house of parliament.
Appeals this week to the Bhumjaithai party with 52 seats from within the opposition alliance
The two perceived swing parties or kingmakers are the Bhumjaithai Party, another breakthrough party, led by Anutin Charnvirakul and the rump of the old Democrat Party, the biggest loser in the March 24th election. The Democrat Party today elected a new leader, Churin Laksanawisit. There have been appeals made to the Bhumjaithai Thai Party which campaigned on a manifesto of offering better access to education and liberalising drugs laws around cannabis and other health giving drugs, to support an opposition alliance. The Bhumjaithai Party and its leader have also campaigned on the basis of opposing the continued rule of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan ocha.
Both lead opposition parties facing probes
Both Pheu Thai and the Future Forward Party face probes and investigations into some of their existing MPs by the election commission as well as the Future Forward leadership. These investigations threaten both their voting numbers and even their future existence in politics. The Future Forward leaders are also facing criminal probes which they claim are politically motivated, claims which are vigorously denied by both the government and prosecutorial agencies including the Royal Thai Police. The leaders of both Pheu Thai, the Future Forward Party and other smaller parties opposed to the continued premiership of Prayuth Chan ocha have been calling for an alliance to block his re election as Prime Minister and the installation of a new ‘democratic’ Prime Minister.
Leader of Bhumjaithai party floated as a compromise Prime Minister in the last week
There are suggestions, from among the proposed alliance, that the bigger parties might even be able to row in behind the charismatic leader of the Bhumjaithai Party as prime minister in order to allow a government to be elected by a majority from within the lower house. The Bhumjaithai leader has said that he would oppose any prime minister elected without attaining a majority in the House of Representatives. Such suggestions have been made openly in the media this week.
Moves to thwart re election of Prayut seem doomed to failure due to constitutional exceptions
However, it would appear that moves to thwart the re election of the Prime Minister leading a government in the short term with a minority in the lower house of Parliament are doomed to failure. This is because of key provisions in the 2017 Constitution notably Section 159 and Section 272 which detail how a new prime minister is to be elected. It would appear that the 2017 Constitution provides for an exception to be made for the first sitting of the National Assembly comprising of the new House of Representatives and the Senate. This exception extends for the first five years. It allows for a Prime Minister to be chosen from the party lists by a joint sitting of the National Assembly comprising of both houses.
Joint sitting of National Assembly looks set to elect Prayut Chan ocha as Prime Minister
Hitherto, many commentators have been focusing on this mechanism as a means to select an outside Prime Minister which is also allowed for but under more restrictive provisions. There also appears to be a provision that any Prime Minister elected by the lower house be subsequently approved by a majority of the upper house. However, this will not be necessary if a joint sitting selects the next Prime Minister. The ambiguity of the situation may be due to the fact that this interpretation is based on a reading of an authorised translation of the 2017 Constitution in English. The latter provision could be interpreted as relating to years outside the initial five year exemption period although the key provision allowing for a joint sitting and vote for the office of Prime Minister appears clear cut.
Deputy PM and legal expert Wissanu Krea-ngam predicts a new government by the end of this month and it looks like Prayut will be elected
This week, the Thai Deputy Prime Minister, Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal expert and the guiding force coordinating the conducts of the election between the government and the election commission up to now, confirmed that both houses will vote on the nomination of a new prime minister. Presumably, this will be under Section 159 for the party lists of prime ministerial candidates among those parties with more than 5% of the lower house seats and Section 272 which provides for the vote to be conducted from among a joint sitting of the National Assembly incorporating both houses.
Existing Premier already has to votes to take office with support from both houses
The Deputy Prime Minister even suggested that the process would be complete in the course of May leaving Thailand with a newly elected prime minister by the end of the month. The current arithmetic leaves the Prime Minister with 381 votes including the support of the Senate, 5 more than he needs even without the support of other parties, to be elected prime minister by the joint sitting of the National Assembly.
Political struggle of governing will be a different matter with a minority in the lower house
This will then lead on to the constitutional provisions surrounding the appointment of new government and cabinet as well as a policy statement from the new government in the coming months. Many observers anticipate that even with a new government formed, there follows a period of political struggle as in the short term, it looks like the new government will lack a majority in the lower house of the assembly. However, a lot can change over time. They say a week is a long time in politics. Thailand has shown even from the experience of the recent election that in Thai politics, a mere 24 hours can often be decisive.