Some within the Democrat and Bhumjaitai parties seem to have forgotten that this new parliament is operating under a very different constitutional dispensation. A difficult economic situation, a Prime Minister who is not an MP and must stand above the fray combined with emerging confidence from the opposition who are beginning to play with the cards they age got, means that this is not business as usual for politics in Thailand.
The new government of Prayut Chan-ocha is facing its first political test before it is even formed as the political parties and observers wait to see how key ministries are filled particularly in areas concerning the economy. Prior to his election as Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-ocha stated clearly that the final decision on cabinet positions would be his alone. It is understood that deals were made between the Palang Pracharat party and the two kingmaker groups, the Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties. The Democrat party was promised three senior ministries with two promised to Bhumjaithai party including the Public Health portfolio. For the Democrats, it was Agriculture, Commerce and Social Development. However, as Thailand faces a more precarious and challenging economic environment, it is reported that the Prime Minister’s economics czar, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, has indicated he may not serve if the government cannot maintain a coherent economic policy free of populist, political pressure. On this basis, over the weekend, concerns were raised about the agreed fate of the Commerce, Agriculture and Transport Ministries. It will be a key indicator on how the Prime Minister intends to govern under the highly structured and restrictive 2017 Charter. It will also clarify the balance of power between the executive and the new parliament, and more particularly, the House of Representatives.
It is expected that Pryaut Chan-ocha will receive royal endorsement this week as Thailand’s Prime Minister. However, any glow of satisfaction he may have felt at last week’s endorsement by Thailand’s National Assembly must be fading as new political realities dawn for the man and a cohort of senior ministers who have been at the helm since the coup of 2014 in Thailand.
Election of Prayut was certain since March 24th but the fate of the new government is less so
The election of Prayut as Prime Minister last week was nearly certain since the night of the election on March 24th 2019 when the Palang Pracharat party which at one point looked like it was having a bad election emerged as a winner. Despite the experience of the senior ministers behind the party, the election result was no mean feat. In the last week of the election, old political divides opened up. It is thought that anti Thaksin feeling, resurrected in the closing days of the campaign, moved behind the new government party at the expense of the Democrat party.
However, the prospects for any government the new Prime Minister forms are less certain as Thailand moves into its first administration created by and operated under the 2017 Constitution.
Election on the PM after 12 hour session obscured real political realities challenging any new government
However, last week’s news that Prayut had been elected as Prime Minister by the National Assembly after 12 hours of debate and the events of the day obscured another reality. The proposed new government only narrowly achieved a majority in the House of Representatives with 250 votes, the slimmest possible margin. One Bhumjathai MP, Siripong Angkasakulkiat, the newly elected MP from Si Sa Ket dramatically voted to abstain and some on the pro government side abstained. The resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva as an MP that day also did nothing for the morale of the MPs within his former party, the Democrats, who went on to vote for the Prime Minister. The same day, the Pheu Thai party and its junior but more radical ally, the Future Forward party showed a certain discipline whipping together a seven party alliance which mustered 244 votes.
Only one week and the 20 party coalition ship is already creaking at the seams
Nearly one week on and already the 18 party coalition that delivered the slim majority although with a confident majority of the combined National Assembly, in the lower house of parliament is creaking at the seams. This is even before the government sits down to business. The controversy right now is the allocation of cabinet ministers when the Prime Minister eventually forms his government.
Prime Minister is not an MP and is limited in his political role by the constitution
This is expected to happen this week. It must be remembered that Prayut Chan-ocha is not an MP and neither are many of his senior ministers. The beginning of the problems that are now emerging seem to be rooted in this significant difference from previous parliaments and efforts to form a government. The 2017 constitution not only allows for an outside government leader but also imposes limits on political bargaining. The Prime Minister, in a number of carefully crafted statements before last week’s vote and while negotiations were ongoing, quite pointedly and steadfastly insisted that the decision on the appointment of cabinet ministers was his and his alone.
Prayut appears to adapt Trump negotiation tactics whether he knows or not
We are not sure if Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha is a fan of US president Donald Trump but one of the US president’s key negotiation tactics, even evidenced over the weekend in the American leader’s standoff with Mexico over immigration and threatened tariffs, is to let another person negotiate on his behalf and withhold what Trump calls the ‘power of veto’. This is what the PM appears to have done in this situation whether knowingly or not.
Prime Minister stands above the fray as a tactic
Thailand’s government leader has always tended to stand above the fray and ultimately, despite the negotiations by the Palang Pracharat Party with the two kingmaker parties, the Democrats and the Bhumjaithai Party, they have not negotiated directly with the Prime Minister.
Proper approach under the 2017 constitution which calls for exceptional discipline in government
Indeed, not only is the Prime Ministers approach shrewd and canny, it is also the safest and most proper course under the very cumbersome and restrictive 2017 constitutional charter. Political parties may not be controlled or directed by outside parties in their political decisions particularly when it relates to government policies. It is valid grounds for their suppression. In fact, the 2017 charter is, in many ways, very restrictive of normal politics as usual across a broad range of areas. It imposes on Thailand a pointedly very prudent and disciplined approach to government. This is the ultimate product of the political reform that it ushered in. Politicians on both sides of the political divide would do well to become more aware of this and act accordingly, even those who oppose the 2017 Constitution must, for now, play by its rules. It is the law after all and one endorsed by the Thai people via the 2016 plebiscite.
Political deals in run up to the PM vote last week
In the run up to the vote on Prime Minister, it has been reported that the Palang Pracharat party had negotiated deals with the Bhumjaithai party and Democrat party as well as a host of smaller parties. The Democrat party held out to the end and believed their strategy was vindicated with an agreement that it would occupy three senior ministries notably the Commerce Ministry, Agriculture and another portfolio believed to be the Ministry of Social Development. This in addition to four junior ministries and a deputy prime minister.
New cabinet to be revealed this week
Then, over the weekend, came news that this may be in doubt. Some in the Democrat Party are hoping that this is simply the Palang Pracharat party flying a kite to test the political reaction. We will find out when the newly endorsed Prime Minister announces his cabinet. This is expected this week.
Economics guru Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak and key Prayut advisor linked to tensions over cabinet posts in the new government
Reports suggest that the PM’s right hand economics expert, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, has intimated that he may refuse to serve if the government party does not have direct control over key economic ministries. This would include, certainly, the Commerce Ministry where trade policy is becoming a high priority but also Agriculture and Transport which have been promised to the Bhumjaithai party in political negotiations leading up to last week’s vote on prime minister.
Valid rationale for Somkid’s reported stance as coherent economic management is critical
There is a valid rationale to this stance by Deputy Prime Minister Jatusripitak. Thailand is in the midst of a rapid deterioration on all economic fronts. The government is desperately hoping to see a recovery in the second half of the year. It really depends on an improvement in export performance but urgent action is needed in agricultural and in public investment to boost economic output. It is also a time of economic headwinds which calls for caution and prudence. Consumer confidence and key economic indices are approaching a two year low. What the government does not need now are disparate populist economic policies driven by the political parties.
End of Junta and associating sweeping powers will call for expert leadership
As the Prime Minister finalizes plans for his new government, he must be aware that its formation will bring an end to the junta or the National Council for Peace and Order and its sweeping powers not least the Section 44 mechanism. This and the clamor from the parliament sitting on Bangkok’s Chaeng Watthana Road must also have telegraphed to him, by now, that this is a very different venture from the one he embarked on in 2014.
Economy and national stability are the core issues
The key challenge facing him is the economy but also never forgetting the need to maintain national stability. On one front, he is facing a deteriorating world and national economic scenario and on the other hand, a resurgent opposition who are talking about strengthening their position both within and without parliament. It should also be noted that both leading opposition parties are indicating a willingness to abide by the constitution which they ultimately seek to either scrap or reform. This is, in fact, a hopeful sign.
Online media spat between government parties over cabinet positions over the weekend
A Thai political science academic underscored the need for a stable new government to be put in place this week when he spoke with the Bangkok Post. Tawee Suraritthikul of Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University said that this needed to restore confidence and set a confident direction for the country. It came as a deputy spokesman for the ruling Palang Pracharat party, Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, engaged in an online social media spat with Bhumjaithai Party leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, of Facebook. The Bhumjaithai party leader wrote: ‘Ministries are meant for people to get in and work, not to be swapped around.’ In response, the Palang Pracharat official said: ‘Ministries are there to work for the people, not for anyone to find work for any company.’
Thai politics requires self sacrifice and honor
What Thai politics badly needs is a commitment to putting the nation first including self sacrifice and an ability to co-operate. The day when one political party reaches across the political divide and with honesty and honor, seeks to do what is best for the country will be the day that Thailand’s political divide and conflict will begin to heal.
The Prime Minister’s approach to deciding who sits in his cabinet should give us some idea how he is going to deal with the new political and legal dispensation that now exists in Thailand under the 2017 Charter and how the executive will work with parliament.