Thailand should take a leaf from Malaysia, which has effected a law to deter party hoppers in the country’s legislature.
The Malaysian parliament is working on a new law to deter its members from changing parties for their own benefit. One provision of the law will strip the unscrupulous party-hoppers of their membership in the House. The Thai parliament should learn from the Malaysian example and emulate it.
Like in the Malaysian Dewan Rakyat, Thailand’s House of Representatives has problems with aisle-crossing and party defections. In Thailand, an MP who frequently violates party lines is known as a ngu hao or cobra (in that they are ingrates who “bite” their “keepers”).
Thai cobra MPs are not afraid of expulsion from their parties. Cunning MPs take full advantage of the constitutional principle that MPs are elected “representatives of the Thai people and [they are] free from any mandate, commitment, or control”. There are other reasons for jumping ship: for instance, they could be dissatisfied with their party, or have been enticed with monetary inducements by other parties. The 2017 Constitution gives an MP expelled from her or his party up to 30 days to join a new party without losing her or his House seat.
However, if an unhappy MP resigns from her or his party, the MP not only immediately forfeits the House membership but also is liable to pay the Election Commission the full cost of holding a by-election to fill the resultant vacancy.
The current Thai constitution was drafted during the rule of the junta that seized power in May 2014 under the leadership of General Prayut Chan-ocha.
Following the March 2019 elections, Prayut now leads a 17-party coalition government. The intention of the charter adopted by his former junta was to weaken political parties under the guise of widening public participation and decentralising party leadership. The constitution drafters went as far as to introduce rules concerning holding party caucuses in each province to select constituency candidates and to screen aspiring party-list MPs.
The rules concerning organising party caucus meetings turned out to be impractical. Most Thai political parties have only a small number of fee-paying members in each province and lack provincial offices to organise caucus meetings. Consequently, General Prayut, while he was the junta head, issued an executive order in September 2018 to suspend these rules on provincial caucuses before the 2019 election. In July 2022, the Thai parliament removed the rules from the amended political party law. But the amendments did not address the problems of unruly MPs’ party-switching and defections.
With the suspension of the party caucus rules, the political landscape in Thailand is gradually moving back to a situation which favours strong party leadership. This will tempt wealthy people to invest in funding political parties.
In the recent no-confidence debate against Prime Minister General Prayut and 10 ministers, well-known cobra MPs from both the government and opposition sides of the House struck again. Many opposition MPs defied party lines and voted to support the prime minister. They included four from the second largest opposition party, the Move Forward; five of six MPs from the New Economics Party and one MP from the Prachachart Party. There were also seven MPs from the largest opposition party, the Phuea Thai, and one from the Move Forward, who ignored party lines and registered votes of abstention instead of votes of no confidence against the premier. Conversely, two dissident MPs in the third-largest government party, the Democrats, voted against the prime minister. None of these cobras feared the consequence of possible expulsion from their parties.
To top things off, these cobra MPs are not done as yet. They are waiting until after 25 September to jump ship again and move to other parties. By that date, the four-year term of the House will enter its last 180 days. Any sudden vacancy in the House seat will no longer be filled in a by-election. This means that MPs can then resign and join other parties without any financial cost. These politicians need to become members of other parties at least 90 days prior to the next general election day to qualify to enter the race.
Thailand is scheduled to host this year’s APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok from 18-19 November. After that, the prime minister is expected to dissolve the House and call an early general election. This will give him and his cabinet members the advantage of incumbency during the election campaign. If the prime minister stays on until the end of the House’s four-year term on 23 March 2023, his premiership along with its perks and privileges will end on that day. A caretaker government run by top bureaucrats who must maintain strict political neutrality during the election campaign would then be installed.
Thirty parties have been set up since the last general election, seven of them in the first half of this year alone. As of 2 August, Election Commission records showed that there were 88 parties in operation.
With the suspension of the party caucus rules, the political landscape in Thailand is gradually moving back to a situation which favours strong party leadership. This will tempt wealthy people to fund political parties. When funders of political parties have strong control over their parties and their MPs, they can reap returns on their “investment” by trading votes and extracting concessions from a weak and unstable government.
At the same time, support for maintaining the independence of MPs will remain strong, because of concerns about manipulation by these wealthy “owners” of political parties seeking to enrich themselves in money politics. This is a key dilemma in Thai politics: balancing the need for strong party control and discipline of MPs, versus the need for “independent” MPs who vote with their conscience.
A new and better balance between party control and independence of MPs is urgently needed in the Thai House. It should learn from Malaysia. Otherwise, political instability in the Thai parliamentary system will continue nine decades since the end of the absolute monarchy in the 24 June 1932 Revolution.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.