The protest movement’s progressive political reform agenda requires an elected Senate, or no Senate.
With Thailand’s current Senate less than two years old, changing it has become a central demand of 2020-2021 street protestors. Why?
Since its establishment in May 2019, the Senate, with its manifold powers, has represented an effective rubber stamp legislative guardian for the arch-royalist, military-dominated government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Such a role is déjà vu in Thai politics. Within Thailand’s 12 bicameral legislatures across history, the current Senate is the eighth to be fully appointed. Appointed Thai Senates have always protected the powers-that-be from progressive legislation passed by Lower Houses while providing postings for loyalists. These are a far cry from the 1997 “People’s Constitution” which created a fully-elected Senate via elections. But the 2006 coup modified this to a half-elected body. Cementing the semi-autocratic status quo, the 2014 coup led to a wholly junta-appointed Senate, with approval of one-third of Senators needed for constitutional amendments.
The post-2019 Senate contains 250 Senators selected by a committee created by Thailand’s 2014-2019 junta and chaired by deputy junta leader General Prawit Wongsuwan. 15 of the 250 Senators came from the junta’s NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order) cabinet while 106 of them are (active-duty or retired) military and police officers. The Senate provides sinecures for loyal senior security officials who legislatively guard conservative interests, while thwarting progressive Lower House legislation and ensuring passage of government-advocated legislation including enormous defense appropriations bills. Senate President, Pornpetch Witchitcholchai was the former President of the ex-junta’s rubber stamp National Legislative Assembly. Senate First Vice President General Singsuek Singprai is Prayuth’s pre-cadet school classmate. Another indication of military predominance in the Senate is that 17 of the 29 Senate Committees are chaired by military officers.
Because the 2017 Constitution allows Senators (alongside Lower House representatives) to select the Prime Minister during the Senate’s first five-year term, Senators could be instrumental in granting another four years to the pro-military Palang Pracharat-led coalition government when its current term ends in 2023—allowing it to persist in office until 2027. The fact that the Lower House term lasts four years while the Senate term lasts five years constitutionally permits the Senate alone to appoint a Prime Minister following a Lower House dissolution or following the expiration of a Lower House term. Time still remains to change the 2017 Constitution to allow Senates to remain appointed. After all, Palang Pracharat enjoys a Lower House majority and most Senators would vote to extend their powers.
The tasks of the Senate (through its 29 committees) is to scrutinise legislation, pass annual appropriations bills and consider constitutional amendments. Though the Senate cannot reject bills from the House, it can disagree with them and delay their passage. The power of the Senate is also reflected through its endorsement authority over specific state monitoring agencies. Any Constitutional Court judge, Election Commissioner, Ombudsman, National Anti-Corruption Commissioner, State Audit Commissioner or National Human Rights Commissioner nominee must obtain the approval of at least 125 senators to be appointed. The junta-appointed Senate will not appoint democratic reformers to these positions.
Given the autocratic character of Thailand’s Senate, some Thai progressive organisations are seeking an end to a Senate altogether.
Other Senate powers include the authority to monitor, recommend and accelerate national reform as embodied in the Twenty-Year National Strategy. Future ministers and governments are obliged to abide by Strategy plans or face impeachment and potentially mandated dissolution respectively. It is the Senate’s task to oversee the strategy as well as ultimately penalise ministers or governments that fail to abide by it.
Since August 2020, Thai street protestors have demanded amendments to the constitution, including the weakening of the Senate. An iLaw amendment that would have weakened the Senate was rejected thanks partly to the 2017 constitution’s mandating that at least 1/3 of Senators approve amendments. Few Senators favour diminishing their own powers.
In November 2020, the government coalition and opposition did agree to add a constitutional drafting committee to the amendment process. But the ruling coalition and Senate then asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of constitutional amendments altogether. With justices having been appointed by the NCPO and no history of judges supporting progressive amendments, any judicial review leading to reform seems highly unlikely. Even if the Court left the door slightly open to reform, conservatives in parliament could delay moves toward a constitutional drafting committee with judicial and legislative roadblocks for months or even years.
Given the autocratic character of Thailand’s Senate, some Thai progressive organisations are seeking an end to a Senate altogether. One civil society group, Constitution Lab, advocates a unicameral elected legislature, seeing the Senate as ineffective except in preventing elected parliamentary majorities from doing their work. It views the Senate as autocratic since over 40 per cent of Senators have military or police backgrounds.
With extremely limited constitutional options available, any changes toward a more democratic, elected Senate appear lost in a long dark tunnel with no end in sight. Continued protests demanding Senate reform can at least keep the issue alive.
Paul Chambers is a Lecturer at Naresuan University.