Puea Thai Party

Upcoming FCCT panel to feature Thai political heavyweights - if the junta allows it...

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 24, 2015 The Foreign Correspondent's Club of Thailand (FCCT) has just announced this upcoming panel discussion in March.

The Future of Politics in Thailand

7pm, Wednesday March 11, 2015

Non-members: 350 Baht entry; Members: Free entry

What kind if future does the military's reform programme promise for Thailand? And will there be space for existing political parties in this new future?

For the first time since the coup, the FCCT is pleased to host a high-level debate, by inviting some of the country's most experienced politicians to the club.

Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council and former deputy leader, Democrat Party

Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party

Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democrat Party

Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party

This really looks interesting because this indeed an illustrious high-profile panel. A couple of notes about the panelists:

Alongkorn Polabutr was considered by many as the prospect to reform and revive the ailing "Democrat" Party, as he was the most vocal advocate calling on his fellow party members to stop blaming vote-buying for the streak of election losses. However, in late 2013 - during the anti-Yingluck government protests and weeks away from snap-elections - he was practically demoted from his position as deputy leader of the "Democrat" Party. This likely contributed to his departure from the party last November but also, much to the dismay of many progressive supporters, to his joining the junta-installed and fully-appointed National Reform Council. Being a NRC member alone makes him a high-profile panelist.

Chaturon Chaiseng is regarded as stalwart from the era of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as he filled many positions in his cabinet: Prime Minister's Office Minister (2001–02), Justice Minister (2002), Deputy Prime Minister (2002–05), and Minister of Education (2005–06). After Thaksin's government was toppled by the 2006 military coup, his Thai Rak Thai Party was subsequently disbanded and most of its members, including Chaturon, banned from politics for five years. Chaturon returned to the Yingluck government in mid-2013 as Education Minister, but was putsched again in May 2014. He was one of the few to defy the junta's mass summons and appeared at the FCCT to give a press conference, only for the military to barge in, arrest him on the spot and bring him in front of a military court. He's currently out on bail and returns to the very same spot at the FCCT next month.

Kasit Piromya. It is often said that the diplomatic sensibilities of the former ambassador to Germany and Japan (especially by this author) are more akin to a wrecking ball. Especially during his tenure as Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (2009-11), he seemed to be solely focused on the fugitive, self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin. In any case, if circumstances are right, he can be highly entertaining to watch.

Phongthep Thepkanjana is another ex-cabinet member of Thaksin Shinawatra (Minister of Justice, Minister of Energy, Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office - see a pattern?) and was Chaturon's predecessor as Education Minister in Yingluck's cabinet.

In any case, it should also be interesting to see, considering at least 50 per cent of the panel, if the Thai military will actually allow the event to take place or at least send a representative with in a humvee to "defend" the government's point of view.

Thai government, Election Commission clash over catch-up poll dates

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 12, 2014

The outcome of the February 2 general election in Thailand remains in legal limbo as the Election Commission (EC) has announced the catch-up dates for the constituencies where voting was disrupted by anti-government and anti-election protesters:

The Election Commission is to hold second chance advance voting in 83 constituencies on April 20, followed by general election re-runs at 10,284 polling stations on April 27. (...)

[Election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn] explained that the new dates were set for April because the meeting had concluded that voting disruption was likely to escalate during the Senate elections, the first day of candidacy registration for which is scheduled on March 4. Voting for senators is set to begin on March 30.

Regarding the 28 southern constituencies which are still without candidates for the general election, Mr Somchai said the EC wants the caretaker government to issue a royal decree to fix a new election date for the 28 constituencies. The EC will write a formal request to be submitted to officials tomorrow, he added.

"General election re-runs set for April", Bangkok Post, February 11, 2014

Advance voting on January 26 saw widespread blockades in Bangkok and many parts in the South, preventing 2 million people from voting. On election day 10,284 polling stations in 18 provinces (again mostly in the South and in Bangkok) were forced to shut down or didn't open at all due to disruptions by anti-government protesters. Official figures show that over 20.5 million people did cast their ballot, a low turnout of 47.2 per cent.

The Election Commission already announced before the polling stations opened (at least those that could) that there would be no official results on that day, leaving a lot of questions unanswered and a lot of issues unresolved. Twenty-eight districts in the South are without any candidates - they were prevented from registering - meaning the mandatory quorum of 95 per cent to form parliament cannot be fulfilled.

Since the election, the EC and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have clashed on what should happen next and when the catch-up polls can be held in the aforementioned districts. In essence, the government argues that the EC has to hold by-elections as soon as possible and has to ensure that it they go smoothly, since that is its duty. On the other hand the EC is reluctant to hold them, citing legal reasons but also safety concerns as many election officials in the South are still being hindered. It should be noted that the Election Commission also displayed some unwillingness to go through with the February 2 elections.

EC officials justified the late catch-up election date with the hope that the political tensions may have calmed down by then, as anti-government protesters are still rallying in central parts of Bangkok, albeit with almost non-existent attendance at their rally stages during the day.

In the interim, elected senators will have completed their term on March 1 and new ones have to be elected on the March 30. That is eight days after the ongoing state of emergency for Bangkok and some surrounding areas is scheduled to be lifted (March 22) - but it would still cover the senate candidate registry on March 4, which is likely to be disrupted by anti-election mobs, as feared by the EC. Should the protests prolong until the scheduled April election dates, the catch-up polls could still be targeted.

As mentioned, 28 districts in the south were not even able to file candidates for the February 2 elections due to blockades in late December and the EC did not extend the registration period. Instead, the commission still proposes that the caretaker government should issue a new royal decree in order to start the entire election process for the affected constituencies. The government, however, has rejected that idea in the past and according to a legal expert of the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it wouldn't be legally possible since the royal decree process dictates that after the dissolution of parliament the subsequent election day "must be the same throughout the Kingdom" (see Article 108 of the Constitution). Also, a second royal decree could void the original parliament dissolution decree and thus render the February 2 elections nullified and meaningless.

In a related development, that is exactly what the opposition Democrat Party - which boycotted these elections - is trying to achieve as they have petitioned the Constitutional Court to nullify the whole election since it wasn't held in one day and it would violate Article 68 of the Constitution with the clear intention to get the interim prime minister Yingluck and the ruling Pheu Thai Party banned. But...

Legally, it is difficult to understand this argument. The election could not be held on one day largely because of the actions of a protest movement to which the Democrat party gives thinly-disguised support.

The use of section 68 is even more baffling. This section outlaws any actions that could threaten the existing democratic system, with the King as head of state. The Democrat argument appears to be that in calling the election at a time of turmoil, and against the advice of the Election Commission, the government put the political system in jeopardy.

"The constitution gives a clear and flexible mechanism to re-run the election where it has been obstructed," says lawyer Verapat Pariyawong. "It is ironic that the Democrats are citing section 68, as this really ought to be used to deal with the disruptions of the protesters rather than the actions of the government. There are no legal grounds I can see for annulling the election."

"No grand bargain amid Thailand political crisis", by Jonathan Head, BBC News, February 10, 2014

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to decide whether or not to accept the petition today (Wednesday). UPDATE: The court rejected.

So the February 2 election remains in limbo for at least another two-and-a-half months, while the caretaker government is facing more and more problems, most recently with rice farmers waiting to be paid subsidies and a related anti-corruption investigation and another one for proposed constitutional amendments. Thailand's political crisis continues with no clear answers on where it will go and how it will all end.

Thai govt declares state of emergency as political crisis deepens

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 22, 2014 The political standoff took a new twist Tuesday when the Thai government's declared state of emergency to counter the ongoing anti-election protests. With additional developments in the background, the wheels in this political crisis are about to spin faster.

With the mass anti-election protesters' campaign to "shutdown" the capital Bangkok entering its second week, the Thai caretaker cabinet decided to declare a state of emergency (SoE) on Tuesday evening as a response to the continuous targeting of government offices and banks by the protesters. The move also comes after explosions on Friday and on Sunday injured over 60 demonstrator and killed one. The suspects are still at large and police have set a 500,000 baht bounty on the perpetrator of Sunday's blast.

The 60-day state of emergency, starting on Wednesday, will last until March 22 and covers Bangkok and in parts its surrounding provinces Nonthaburi, Thonburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakarn. While the emergency decree is significant in principle - potentially  expanding the power of security forces to include searches, arrests and detentions people with limited judicial and parliamentary oversight and also censor media coverage - details of which regulations are being issued had yet to emerge as of publishing.

The announcement also includes a restructuring of the government organization tasked with handling the demonstrations. It now officially called the "Center for Maintaining Peace and Order" (CMPO) or "ศูนย์รักษาความสงบ" (ศรส.) in Thai.

Tuesday's announcement brought a familiar face in Thai politics back to the front line with the Pheu Thai MP Chalerm Yubamrung, who announced the CoE, assuming the position as CMPO director, while police chief-general Adul Saengsingkaew and defence ministry's permanent-secretary Nipat Thonglek acting as operating directors.

Chalerm is a veteran politician known for his bullish appearance and his reputation of being a blowhard, to put it mildly. When he was reappointed from deputy prime minister overlooking national security to labor minister in a reshuffle last year, he bemoaned his apparent political downfall. But when the current protests kicked off last November, somehow Chalerm managed to wrestle his way back into the headlines when he seemingly single-handedly took charge of monitoring the rallies led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban - practically his political counterpart and arch-nemisis. Weeks later, Chalerm even boastfully and colorfully announced that he's "****ing back!"

The CMPO declared that the rallies by Suthep - who in April 2010 as deputy PM issued the last SoE declared in Thailand during the red shirt protests - have "constantly violated the law, especially in closing down government offices and banks and harassment against civil servants to prevent them from working.” But at the same time they insist there are no plans to crack down on the protesters and are hoping that Suthep will surrender himself to the authorities. A notable sight during the televised announcement was the toned down presence by military officers, normally front and center at such announcements, even though many hold positions in the CMPO.

As the effects of the state of emergency declaration are yet to take effect, the government of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has taken a proactive role after months of a hesitant, non-confrontational approach by police. Protest leader Suthep was unsurprisingly defiant, as he called the authorities to "come and get us" and still insists that his movement is "peaceful" despite riots and threats by its militant wing. Suthep says that the protests will continue with a view to stopping the February 2 election.

In related news, the Election Commission (EC) - still very reluctant to hold the February 2 polls - has asked the Constitutional Court to review the possibility of postponing the election. According to the constitution, a general election cannot be moved to another date, but by-elections can. However, with the SoE declaration affecting only Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the court may actually find a reason delay the vote because of these special circumstances. Moreover, candidacy registration has been disrupted by anti-election protesters in over 20 districts in the deep South.

With the state of emergency declaration the tense standoff between protesters and caretaker government goes to the next level and is less than likely being resolved anytime soon, since the government seemingly determined to hold the February 2 election and Suthep most likely now even more determined to stop it. Adding to that the EC's ongoing efforts to delay the February 2 elections, the National Anti-Corruption Commission's investigation against 308 mostly Pheu Thai lawmakers for their role in the proposed constitutional amendments and another probe directly targeting caretaker prime minister Yingluck for her rice subsidy scheme, the current political crisis in Thailand could be in very real danger of spinning out of control.

Thailand's NACC ruling: Why it happened and what it means

Originally published at Siam Voices on January 8, 2014 Thailand's National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) will charge 308 lawmakers, most from interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party, for proposed amendments to the country's constitution adding more uncertainty over its candidates for the upcoming federal election on February 2.

The proposed changes would have changed the Senate into a fully-elected chamber with 200 members, whereas currently only 76 elected and 74 appointed senators make up the 150-strong upper House (Article 111 of the Constitution). The amendments would have also affected passages that bar direct relatives of MPs, political party members and recently retired MPs to run for Senate (Articles 115.5, 115.6 and 115.7, respectively) and would have done away the one-term limit of six years (Article 117). The draft passed both the House and the Senate in all three readings.

In November, the Constitutional Court quashed the draft amendments and declared them unconstitutional, citing a violation of Article 68 of the Constitution stating that a fully-elected senate would “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State,”  and insisting that all these changes would enable "a domination of power" by both chambers. Additionally, the Court noted irregularities (some Pheu Thai MPs were caught using their colleagues' voting ID cards) and discrepancies (the original draft is not the same that was later submitted to parliament, mainly regarding Article 117) in the parliamentary process.

However, the Court stopped short of dissolving the Pheu Thai Party. Instead, the opposition Democrat Party (whose MPs and like-minded appointed senators had originally brought this case to Constitutional Court) asked the NACC to investigate the 383 MPs and senators - including Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the presidents of the House and the Senate - that have proposed and voted in favor of the amendments, seeking their impeachment.

The NACC announced on Tuesday that after a 7:2 decision it will press charges against 308 lawmakers - 293 of them have proposed and voted in favor in all three readings, while 15 did so in one of the readings. The key reason is this discrepancy:

"The NACC [at this point] based its decision on the Constitution Court's ruling which also covers the part about the falsified draft charter amendment, (...) Basically, the 308 MPs and senators were involved in proposing the draft, so they should be aware that the draft was fake and they should be responsible for their actions," [NACC member Vicha Mahakhun] said.

"NACC to charge 308 lawmakers", Bangkok Post, 8 January, 2014

They also decided to dismiss charges against 73 lawmakers, including interim Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, finding their part in the process to be "insufficient" and protected by Article 130 of the Constitution, which sets out an MPs' or senator's right "in giving statements of fact or opinions or in casting the vote by any member" to be "absolutely privileged".

65 of these lawmakers voted in favor in the third and final reading, while only eight did in the first and/or the second, but none of them actually proposed the amendments. Two other lawmakers have been dropped from the complaints.

Also, in a separate case, the NACC will charge Parliament President Somsak Kiatsuranont and his deputy, Senator Nikom Wiratpanij, for their roles in passing the proposed amendments, accusing both of abusing their power. Both men will hear their charges Friday.

The big questions now are what will happen next and what impact it could have for the upcoming elections on February 2, as many of the 308 lawmakers are running for office? As of now, the legislators are asked to testify to the NACC in the next two weeks and can remain in their positions until then. The NACC will then decide on their cases and whether or not the MPs and senators will face impeachment. In that case, Article 272 of Constitution applies here, which states that if the NACC finds "that the accusation has a prima facie case (evident to be true until proven otherwise)," the accused should "not perform his or her duties until the Senate has passed its resolution".

Amidst the ongoing anti-government and anti-election street protests (with protesters set to up the ante again on January 13 with a city-wide "shutdown" in the capital Bangkok) aimed at suspending electoral democracy indefinitely in favor of an appointed "People's Assembly", fears of a coup of some sort have increased. Comments by army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha on a military coup (“Don’t be afraid of things that haven’t yet happened ... But if they happen, don’t be frightened. There are [coup] rumours like this every year.”) have done very little to calm things down.

A "judicial coup" has become a little more likely with the NACC's decision to press charges against hundreds of lawmakers from Pheu Thai,  Thailand's most electorally successful political party, and their fate will be decided in two weeks - just days before election day on February 2.

Siam Voices 2013 Review - Part 1: Blowing the final whistle on Thailand's political calm

Originally published at Siam Voices on December 27, 2013 Welcome to the Siam Voices 2013 year in review series, where we look back at the most important and interesting headlines, issues and stories that happened in Thailand this past year. Today we start with the political 2013, which looked very different when it started compared to the chaos on the street we have now - and it is far from being over.

NOTE: This was written before Thursday's escalation of violence that killed a police officer. Furthermore, the Election Commission is openly calling to indefinitely postpone the February 2 snap-elections, which was rejected by the caretaker government.

For a while, it looked like the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was seemingly unshaken by almost everything this year. Neither the increasingly erratic and rabid opposition in and outside parliament nor the problems of their own policies threatened the relative stability of this rule - almost.

The government launched or continued a series of populist policies that were well-intended but not perfect. The rice-pledging scheme did not lift international market prices as anticipated and Thailand lost its top exporter spot. Instead, the country sits on millions of tons of stockpiled rice it cannot get rid of - if so, only at a loss. Furthermore the scheme was tainted by alleged corruption and scaremongering over its safety.

Other incentives didn't bring in the desired effects either, such as tax rebates for first-car-buyers that proved to be a short-term success but backfired later with car owners defaulting on their purchases, or the raise of the daily minimum wage to 300 Baht (about $10) that benefitted a lot of employees but was met with resistance by their employers, especially small and middle enterprises. Also, the 2 trillion Baht borrowing scheme drew considerable criticism, despite the fact that an overhaul of the country's crumbling infrastructure is much-needed.

Politically, Yingluck herself faced a volley of criticism, for example about her constant absence in parliament or the back-and-forth fallout after her uncharacteristically sharp and committed Mongolia-speech in late April. Even the various anti-government (and utterly mislabeled) groups over the year - "Pitak Siam""Thai Spring", "V for Thailand", "PEFOT" etc. - were not able to do much, but in hindsight were a sign of things to come later that year.

Despite all this, Yingluck managed to maintain a tense, but relative calm in the Thai power struggle at least for the first half the year. Even the military didn't mind that much to have Yingluck taking up the defense minister portfolio in the last cabinet reshuffle.

Maybe that was the reason why her government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT) felt so confident that they thought it could ram a broad amnesty bill through both parliament and senate. Initially only meant to absolve political protesters from the rallies between 2006 and 2010 but not their leaders (and none convicted of lèse majesté either), a parliamentary committee dominated by PT MPs did an audacious bait-and-switch and re-wrote to expand those "accused of wrongdoing by an organisation set up after the coup of 2006" - which would have included former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's conviction in 2008 and paved him his return to Thailand after years of self-imposed exile.

Protesters' explosion and Democrat Party's implosion

The Pheu Thai Party absolutely underestimated the outrage the bill would spark. It managed to create an amnesty bill broad enough to upset nearly everybody, even their own red shirt supporter base, since it also would have covered those responsible for the violent crackdown of 2010. Thaksin, who undoubtedly still wields considerable influence from afar - has gambled away his ticket home and it'd take a long while until he or his party can try another attempt.

Despite the bill unanimously struck down in the senate and repeated pledges by the government not to resubmit it again, the controversy ignited the anti-amnesty protests which re-united the anti-Thaksin forces and brought them together as a motley crew of self-proclaimed "saviors" against corruption and for "true democracy". After the bill's demise, the movement unmasked itself as an all-out anti-government campaign led by veteran Democrat Party politician Suthep Thuagsuban. The Constitutional Court's rejection of the government's proposed charter amendments did change a little at that time already, as did the House dissolution and scheduling of snap-elections on February 2, 2014.

A lot has been already said here about the protesters and their intentions lately, but it still bears repeating: this drive is not a push against corruption and for true, sustainable political reforms, but an undemocratic power grab that keeps on escalating until there is a complete derailment of the democratic process and the resulting vacuum is replaced by a system (e.g. in form of the appointed "People's Council") that is aimed at disenfranchising a large portion of the electorate only in order to prevent Thaksin and his political influences taking hold in Thailand again, no matter how high the cost. The fact that somebody with such a chequered past like Suthep can now brand himself as the "people's champion" is a cruel punchline of the flexible moralities in Thai politics. Corruption and abuse of power in Thai politics existed before Thaksin and surely will not end with his often demanded "eradication" - somebody like Suthep should know it best.

This is the result of the opposition's pent-up frustration at the electoral invincibility of Thaksin-affiliated parties and the failure to adapt to the changing political and social landscape - especially in the North and Northeast, of which many of the protesters hold dangerously outdated views (e.g. "uneducated rural", "dictatorship of the majority", "vote-buying") of them. The steady demise of the opposition Democrat Party was illustrated by repeated antics in parliament and party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva calling Yingluck a "stupid bitch". After much meandering, the Democrat Party decided not to be part of the democratic solution but part of the anti-democratic problem by announcing to boycott the elections of February 2 and thus declaring political bankruptcy.

This year and especially the last two months have left us with an uncertain future for the state of the country's political stability; divisions are greater than ever before with compromise never further away as we inch ever closer to the brink of chaos. The elections will help little to ease the tensions, but alternatives are no better. The question is now: how do you fix democracy? Surely not by taking down the whole house and letting it be only rebuilt and inhabited by a selected few.

The Siam Voices 2013 year in review series continues tomorrow. Read all parts here: Part 1: Politics - Part 2: Lèse Majesté & the media - Part 3: The Rohingya - Part 4: Education and reform calls - Part 5: What else happened?