Thailand’s complex Senate election at risk as court decision looms

The closely-controlled process to choose a new Senate is under scrutiny after some alleged it was unlawful.

The Senate played a key role in blocking the election-winning Move Forward Party from power [File: Jack Taylor/AFP]By Andrew NachemsonPublished On 17 Jun 202417 Jun 2024

Bangkok, Thailand – Thailand’s nearly one-month-long Senate selection process kicked off last week, amid accusations that the system is skewed in favour of the conservative establishment, and as legal threats against the opposition risk derailing tentative steps back towards democracy.

After seizing power in a 2014 coup, the Thai military directly appointed 250 people to the upper house in a move seen as an attempt to stymie meaningful political reform as the country transitioned back to a flawed democracy. After last year’s election, the senators blocked the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) from forming a government, even though it had won the most seats in parliament and the largest share of the vote.

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The Senate’s role in choosing the prime minister was temporary, however, as was its direct appointment by the military. This month a new batch of 200 senators is being selected from the leaders of key industries, in a complicated weeks-long process where only registered candidates are allowed to vote.

Candidates must be over 40 years old, have 10 years of experience in their field, not be a current member of a political party, and pay a registration fee of 2,500 baht ($68). Ten candidates will be selected from 20 occupational groups, including government, law, education, arts and culture, and women’s affairs. The final round of voting is expected on June 26, with results announced on July 2.

“The new lot of senators will have two key roles,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

“Constitutional change requires one-third of the 200 new senators. Equally important, the new senators will have oversight over appointments of the Election Commission and Constitutional Court.”

The current constitution was promulgated under the military in 2017, and calls for it to be amended or scrapped have grown in recent years. Rulings by the Election Commission and Constitutional Court, meanwhile, have seen pro-democracy political candidates and parties dissolved and banned.

Most recently, they have turned their attention to MFP. The Election Commission recommended that the Constitutional Court dissolve the progressive party based on its calls to reform the controversial lese-majeste law, which criminalises criticism of the monarchy. The Constitutional Court is still deliberating and could announce its decision on Tuesday. It previously ruled in January that MFP’s reform attempts were tantamount to attempting to overthrow the monarchy.

Candidates must be checked beforehand to make sure they are over the age of 40 and have 10 years of experience in their field. They must also not be a member of a political party [Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

Thitinan said that given the continued importance of the Senate, it was “being contested fiercely”.

“There will likely be moves by the conservative establishment, including the Election Commission, to make sure the Senate does not end up with enough progressive voices to change the constitution,” he said.

Even the constitutionality of the senate selection has been challenged, with the Constitutional Court expected to deliver a verdict on its legality on Tuesday morning.

Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul, a member of the legal advocacy group iLaw, said the process was “neither fair nor democratic” and that was intentional.

“The problems you see in the process are a feature not a bug… a lot of them are by design,” he said, adding that the process should not be called an “election” but a “selection”.

Chamjirachaikul said his team has already received some reports of irregularities, like former generals registering to represent the agriculture sector, or people being offered 10,000 baht ($270) to register and vote for a specific candidate.

‘Tainted’

June, a 26-year-old assistant to progressive candidate Nongyao Nawarat, a retired professor of sociology at Chiang Mai University, said the “unfair selection system” was designed to prevent young people from participating.

She said the approach showed the establishment was scared of younger voters and their demands for reform, and would do whatever it took to block real change. Before the election, progressive activists and candidates activated their grassroots networks, encouraging as many people sympathetic to the movement as possible to register as candidates.

“Of course, conservatives do similar things,” June said. “And they still [have] the advantage of spending more money. But I still believe in the power of the people on our side.”

Because of the way the process is structured, it is impossible to counter conservative organising without encouraging contacts to register with the intention of voting for somebody else. But Chamjirachaikul said the progressive strategy was to be “open and transparent”.

“We have a public event and ask any candidate to come to this event, the press are allowed to be there, and they will introduce themselves in the open,” he said. “You have to say what you stand for – new constitution, amending lese-majeste, democratic principles, are you against another coup?”

The previous Senate, seen here during an April vote on same-sex marriage, was appointed by the military  [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

Chamjirachaikul stressed candidates needed to sign up, even if they did not expect or even want to win a seat, in order to vote.

“We don’t pay anyone, we don’t even have the money to pay anyone. But if you’re over 40, have the money, have the time and want to contribute to democracy, you can register and vote for somebody who shares the same vision of democracy for Thailand as you,” he said.

He said the eventual senate will lack representation and accountability, which will further tarnish the body’s reputation, already “tainted” by years of acting as a proxy for the military.

“When you don’t have clear representation you don’t have clear accountability, unlike MPs who would have to be confronted by their own constituencies, but who are these new senators’ constituencies? There’s no one,” Chamjirachaikul said.

However, even with the selection issues, Thitinan said the next senate would “still be more representative of the Thai people compared to the expired 250-member senate which was chosen by the military”.

This is in line with other modest reforms since last year’s election, which saw the moderate pro-democracy Pheu Thai Party form a coalition government with conservative and military-backed parties.

But Chamjirachaikul said it was worth asking why Thailand needed a Senate at all. “We as Thais should be able to debate and discuss on this openly,” he said. “We’ve seen enough of the Senate.”

June said regardless of what the establishment did to hold back the tide, youth activists would continue fighting for change.

“We are the new generation. We will do whatever it takes to change this country for the better. It may not happen in a single session or in a single night. But it will gradually change.”

Source: Al Jazeera