Even if the cabinet arrangement fails to hold a majority in the House, the junta can still function minimally with help of the Constitution and unelected Senate.
King Vajiralongkorn signed the announcement in the Government Gazette on 9 June to officially make Prayut Chan-o-cha the 29th Prime Minister of Thailand. Bending the knee in front of the King’s portrait, he swore to receive the royal mandate on Tuesday 11 June and gave the first speech of his second term saying he will listen to the voices of the people while fulfilling his duty.
Source: Prayut Chan-o-cha's Fanpage
As many have reported, not only did he bend the knee, but also he bent the rules from the beginning. Prayut set up a Constitutional Drafting Committee headed by Meechai Ruchuphan in 2015. The resulting draft, specifically designed to facilitate the junta’s continuation of power, was approved through a national referendum under tight censorship and a barrage of propaganda in 2016.
Once the Constitution came into force, it turned out that almost all the independent bodies were legally appointed or had their terms extended by the junta, including the Election Commission, the Ombudsman, and the Constitutional Court. And they returned the favour with interest. In March 2019, amid accusations of irregularities and vote suppression, the Election Commission exploited the rules of the new single-ballot system to support the junta.
Using a method of calculation of its own creation, the Election Commission gave extra party-list MPs to small parties, who in return promptly signalled their support for the junta. A 17-page report by the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Madihol University, revealed Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the opposition leader, should have won the premiership if the rules were strictly implemented. Perhaps this was the reason why the Constitutional Court had suspended him from his position as an MP.
As if this was not enough to keep the junta in power, the Senate were also appointed by the junta. Wissanu Krea-ngam, the Deputy Prime Minister, revealed that the previously secret Senate selection committee consisted of 10 close allies of Prayut. 6 of them are now senators themselves, while another 3 had their relatives appointed as senators. The 250 unelected senators are empowered by the Constitution in its first 5 years to vote in the selection of the Prime Minister along with the members of House of Representatives.
The result was as expected. The parliament voted 500-244 for Prayut to be the Prime Minister. The Senate gave him undivided support and Phalang Pracharat, the party which nominated Prayut as the Prime Minister, somehow managed to cobble together a government coalition of 251 MPs out of 500 (based on a number of MPs who voted Prayut to be the Prime Minister). However, when only 2 defectors can change the vote on any piece of legislation, the stability of government can be unbearably weak.
Despite the thin majority and after their coalition voted in Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Phalang Pracharat Party took back three important cabinet seats that had been promised to Bhumjaithai (52 MPs) and the Democrat Party (54 MPs), including the Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Agriculture, and Ministry of Commerce. Jurin Laksanawisit, the leader of Democrat Party, said he is confident that the arrangement would remain unchanged. However, Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of Bhumjaithai Party, did not think so.
Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana (Left) Anutin Charnvirakul (Right)
The move triggered a feud on social media between Anutin and Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, Deputy Spokesperson of the Phalang Pracharat Party. Anutin said the ministries are for work, not for back-and-forth bartering. Thanakorn said the ministries are for the people, not for the corporates, implying that the Ministry of Transport might be a business opportunity for the Sino-Thai Company, whose former President is Anutin, if Bhumjaithai takes the Ministry of Transport. However, the arrangement likely remains unchanged because Bhumjaithai is too important to ignore.
Source: Thai Rath TV
Meanwhile, Damrong Phidej, the leader of Thai Forest Conservation Party (3 MPs), said it would not join the government coalition unless Phalang Pracharat gave him the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. 10 other small parties, which each gained one MP from the problematic party-list calculation method, held a press conference together saying that they would take 2 cabinet seats earlier promised to them.
The reason why Phalang Pracharat scratched the cabinet assignments might be because it is proving difficult to allocate the ministries even within Phalang Pracharat itself. According to Prachachat, the party consists of at least 10 factions which do not always work in harmony. The most influential of all, however, is the Three Alliance faction led by Somsak Thepsuthin, Suriya Juangroongruangkit, and Somkid Jatusripitak. They were important figures in the making of the Thai Rak Thai party led by Thaksin Shinawatra. Now they have shifted loyalty to serve the junta.
If the cabinet cannot be arranged well enough to hold all of them together, defectors can emerge and obstruct legislation. Many predicted the government would be unstable, and there might be another general election very soon. However, the junta is well prepared just in case it fails to hold majority in the House of Representatives. The devil is in the Constitution.
The backup plan
Just in case the junta has no majority, Prayut still has tricks up his sleeve. There are certain constraints as to how much he can use them as excessive use could cause a crisis of legitimacy. However, these constitutional mechanisms can help the junta to minimally function.
Meechai Ruchuphan, the man behind the 2017 Constitution.
The first basic function of the government is to pass laws. Even without a majority in the House, the junta has Section 270 which would enable the 250 unelected senators to vote together with the House of Representatives on any matter related to National Reform or National Strategy. Section 270 requires that the cabinet or one-fifth of the House of Representatives makes a request to the Speaker of the Parliament who has to pass it on to a Committee. Section 270 requires a majority of the Committee to bring in the senators.
Who is on the committee? It consists of the Speaker of the Senate as Chairperson, one Deputy Speaker of the House, the leader of the opposition, one representative of the cabinet, and one chairperson of the standing committees in the Senate, selected from among themselves. While the Speaker of the Senate, Pornpetch Wichitworachai, and the Senate standing committee chairpersons are all appointed by the junta, the representative of the cabinet will also surely be an ally of Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Prime Minister. Both Deputy Speakers of the House are members of the government coalition. So the leader of the opposition is the only one from outside the junta’s circle.
Prayut Chan-o-cha will also be immune from any motion of no-confidence, if he is found to have nothing to do with corruption (and very likely so, because the National Anti-Corruption Commissioners are all appointed by the junta). Section 272 enables the Senate to vote for the Prime Minister together with the House in the first 5 years of the Constitution, whether the House has been dissolved or not. So even if Prayut by some miracle loses a vote of no-confidence and is kicked out by the House, no Section in the Constitution prevents the Senate from joining the House and voting him back in. And the Constitution allows only one motion of no-confidence a year.
Even though the Future Forward Party is campaigning to amend Sections 272 and 279 (another problematic Section which declares all NCPO orders to be constitutional), this will be very difficult, since constitutional amendments require 376 votes of the whole parliament (House plus Senate) and at least one-third of the Senate to pass. Is the Senate likely to vote on their conscience? In their last vote, for Prayut’s premiership, the senators voted 249 out of 250 for Prayut, the only sop to ethics being the traditional abstention by the Speaker of the Senate.