What role will senators play in naming Thailand's next PM?
Despite declaring that Move Forward will form the next coalition with five other parties, party leader Pita Limjaroenrat is facing one formidable obstacle on his journey to the premiership – the junta-appointed Senate.
Move Forward’s allies are Pheu Thai, Thai Sang Thai, Thai Liberal, Prachachart and Fair parties, and together they will have 310 of the 500-seat House of Representatives.
To become Thailand’s 30th premier, the 42-year-old Harvard graduate will require 376 votes from both houses of Parliament, which means he will require at least 66 votes from the Senate.
The 250 senators were appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in May 2019 and are seen as a key parliamentary mechanism to help the coup makers retain ruling power.
In this article, The Nation takes a look at who these senators are and why they can choose the next prime minister.
Who are the senators and what do they do?
The current senators are Thailand’s 12th batch and the first under the 2017 Constitution, which stipulates that the number of senators should account for half of the House of Representatives.
The 250 senators have a five-year term in office and are responsible for following up and making suggestions on the administration, as well as ensuring that the country’s development matches the national strategy.
Most importantly, senators have the power to select the PM with members of the Lower House from the list of candidates proposed by elected parties.
Where do senators come from?
There are three ways a Thai national can become a senator:
1. Automatically upon assuming the following position:
- Supreme Commander-in-Chief
- Army chief
- Navy chief
- Air Force chief
- National Police chief
- Defence Ministry permanent secretary
2. Elected by other senators
3. Appointed by the King or military junta.
Most of the senators in place were appointed by the NCPO, which was established after the May 2014 military coup.
The selection committee was chaired by General Prawit Wongsuwon, who later served as deputy prime minister in the subsequent military government.
Powers of senators, from past to present
Since the establishment of the Senate in 1946, the Thai Parliament has had a total of 12 batches of senators in 77 years.
Senators’ roles and powers have changed every time a new charter has been written.
The provision in the 2017 Constitution has been widely criticised because it gives the Senate a five-year term and gives senators the power to vote for the PM.
Several parties have criticised this, saying that giving senators voting power contradicts democratic principles as senators are not elected.
Fixing this issue has also proved to be problematic, as amending the Constitution will require a nod from a third of the Senate or at least 84 senators.
The 2017 Constitution’s provision is the first of its kind, as no senators in the previous batch had the power to select the PM.
History of the Thai Senate
1946: First Senate is established with 100 royally appointed members
1952: A unicameral National Assembly is established with 123 members
1968: Senate with 164 royally appointed members is established
1972: The Legislature is banned by Thanom Kittikachorn
1974: Royally appointed Senate returns
1976: Unicameral National Assembly with 360 royally appointed members established
1978: Senate with 225 royally-appointed members set up
1991: A unicameral National Assembly with 292 royally-appointed members established
1997: The first fully elected Senate with 200 members and a six-year term is established
2006: Following the military coup, an interim charter is written and a 250-member National Legislative Assembly is created
2007: Half the Senate is appointed and half elected under the 2007 Constitution
2014: After the military coup, an interim constitution is written, under which a 220-member National Legislative Assembly is established
2018: After the 2017 Constitution is enacted, the Parliament is re-established and the National Legislative Assembly dissolved
2019: A new Senate comprising 250 military-appointed members is sworn in after the general election is held on March 24.
The obstacle presented by 250 senators
As Move Forward holds talks with allies to form a new government, some senators have declared that they will not endorse Pita as the next premier.
Their reasoning is that senators will only vote for a candidate based on his or her qualifications and suitability as well as policies of the candidate’s party. Whether he or she comes from the party with the most MP seats will also affect the decision.
These facts have Move Forward supporters worried that the 250 junta-appointed senators, who are mostly military and police officers, former ministers, civil servants and lawyers, may not endorse Pita for the PM’s job.
Senator Jadet Insawang said on Monday that when he assumed office, he took an oath to protect the current Constitution. The charter’s Articles 6 and 50 require everybody protects the constitutional monarchy, he said.
However, he added, Pita had announced that his party intended to revoke Section 112 or the lese majeste law, which would discredit the monarchy and that was unacceptable.
Senator Wanlop Tangkhananurak, meanwhile, said he would uphold democratic principles and vote for the candidate of the party that won the most seats in the general election.
Senator Lertrat Rattanawanich said he has not yet decided who he will vote for as Move Forward has not yet officially established a government.
“Please wait for things to become clearer and refrain from speculating on anything now,” he said.
A source familiar with the matter said on Tuesday that six senators – five top brass and the National Police chief – have decided not to vote for the next PM in a bid to maintain their neutrality.
The six had earlier announced that they would not take their salaries as senators and refrained from voting on other issues in Parliament.