Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha arrives for the 16th ASEAN-India Summit in Bangkok on November 3, 2019, on the sidelines of the 35th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. (Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

A New Chapter in Thailand’s Politics

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As Thailand's opposition parties weaken from allegations and defections, the ruling coalition government is set to gain strength in the House with little competition - heralding a new era in the country's politics.

The ease with which the coalition government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has passed the second and final third readings of Thailand’s 2020 budget bill in the House of Representatives heralds the start of a new chapter in the country’s politics.
Evidently, the 19-party coalition has gained strength in the House, at the expense of the weakening opposition.

Prayut and the members of his cabinet do not need to worry about the prospect of an upcoming no-confidence debate in the House. The opposition does not appear to have enough strength to sink the Prayut premiership or to vote out any of his ministers.

The motion on the no-confidence debate is expected to reach the House floor soon after the budget bill becomes law later this month. The budget bill will go to the Senate in the third week of January. After its assured passage in the upper house, the bill will be presented to the king for his signature.

House debate on the budget bill was initially scheduled for two days, 8 and 9 January. It was subsequently extended to 10 January, and then to 11 January. This was the first time that the House spent four days debating a budget bill. Even with additional time, the seven parties that comprise the parliamentary opposition could do little to change the allocations of funds that the government proposed.

The new year of 2020 seems to have presented Prime Minister Prayut with fresh political good fortune.

Just Some Minor Cuts

The budget bill contained allocations of 3,200 billion baht (or about S$143 billion) for the financial year of 2020. The House ad hoc committee set up to scrutinise the bill settled on cuts amounting to 16.23 billion baht, or about 0.5 per cent of total proposed spending, before the government submitted the revised bill to parliament for the second and then third and final readings. The government side rejected the suggestions from opposition parties for further cuts to the proposed budget, amounting to 15 per cent of proposed spending.

One surprise at the end of the long debate on the budget bill was the outcome of voting on the third and final reading of the revised version of the bill. There were 253 votes in favour of the budget bill — including seven votes from members of opposition parties — whereas most opposition members of parliament either abstained or did not participate in the voting.

Five of the seven opposition members of parliament who voted for the budget bill came from the New Economics Party. One of the seven belonged to the Phuea Thai Party, and the last one came from the Prachachat Party.

These defections, as well as the Future Forward Party’s expulsion of four of its members of parliament in December, suggest that the seven opposition parties now control fewer than 240 votes in the 500-member House. When the seven parties tried but failed in March 2019 to set up a Phuea Thai-led coalition government, they claimed to control 255 votes.

A Weakening Opposition

The opposition may soon be weakened further, should the Future Forward Party be dissolved. The second largest opposition party is facing at least two serious allegations.

The Constitutional Court will announce on 21 January its ruling on a case in which the Future Forward Party has been accused of opposing the political system of democratic constitutional monarchy and its leadership of harbouring seditious views.

Even if the Future Forward Party is acquitted in the sedition case, it will still face another serious allegation: unlawfully accepting 191 million baht in loans from party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. This is allegedly tantamount to submitting to financial domination by Thanathorn. The 40-year-old auto parts tycoon himself disclosed lending money to the cash-strapped party, of which he serves as founding leader, to fund its operations last year.

If the young party is found to have violated the law and is then dissolved, its executive committee members, including Thanathorn, may also be banned from politics for a number of years. And its remaining members of parliament will have 60 days to find a new party or new parties to join, in order not to lose their House seats.

The party now has 76 members of parliament; 26 of them were elected in electoral constituencies, and the other 50 are party-list members of parliament. It is unclear what will happen to these 50, should Future Forward be dissolved. But what is certain is that the eleven people among them who are also members of the party executive committee will lose their parliamentary seats if they are banned from politics.

Most probably, a majority of the remaining Future Forward members of parliament will migrate to and effectively take over an existing party — to be rechristened, perhaps, a New Future Forward Party. Others may defect from the opposition and join government parties.

The net outcome will be the further weakening of the opposition and the strengthening of the coalition government.

The new year of 2020 seems to have presented Prime Minister Prayut with fresh political good fortune. But what he will or can do with this enhanced political stability remains to be seen.