In Thailand, public resentment after the failure last week of Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s premiership bid due to a lack of support in the national Senate is boiling into an unprecedented challenge to the legitimacy of the military-appointed body.
The 250-member upper house of the parliament is seen as a key bastion of the conservative establishment opposed to Pita and his progressive party. In the 13 July vote, senators made a muted show of rejection – while 34 voted directly against Pita, 159 abstained while 43 either didn’t vote or failed to show up to the session altogether.
Move Forward emerged as the surprise victor in the May election, winning more than 14 million votes. The flat refusal to seat Pita, who is facing a raft of legal challenges, is seen by many Thais as a direct refutation of the will of the people. This has led to growing street protests – including a rally last week of 500 cars and motorbikes parading through the streets of Bangkok – and online campaigns attempting to expose senators for misbehaviours ranging from shady financial dealings to extramarital affairs.
Amidst the public challenges to the Senate, Move Forward has pressed to amend the constitution in order to exclude the senators from participating in the prime minister selection process altogether. Political analysts expect such mobilisations to increase as the elected opposition struggles against conservative headwinds to form a new government, but also thought it unlikely for such demonstrations to change minds in the military-backed Senate.
Demonstrations against institutions perceived to be authoritarian are not new in Thailand, but this is the first time such protests have been targeted squarely at the unelected upper house, said Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“As far as I know there haven’t been any significant protests against the Senate acting as the representative of the bureaucracy or the establishment,” he said. “I think this is a very new phenomenon, and it has been brought to light only because the Senate has been voting directly against the popular view.”
Fear of precisely this kind of public backlash was likely what drove the majority of senators to abstain on 13 July rather than vote against Pita, noted Termsak Chalermpalanupap, who is also with ISEAS–Yusof Ishak as a coordinator of the Thai studies programme.
“Some of them didn’t want to be seen opposing Pita openly, because there are costs,” Termsak said.
Many senators justified their decision to abstain as based on personal conviction that the Senate should not be involved in selecting the prime minister, said Ken Mathis Lohatepanont, a PhD researcher at the University of Michigan in the U.S.
“They have argued that they are abstaining because they do not want to participate in the selection of the prime minister, in accordance with calls that the Senate ‘turn off the switch’ and refrain from exercising this power,” he stated. “Of course, this doesn’t actually make life easier for Pita because the constitution requires 375 affirmative votes; abstentions do not help Pita get over the line.”
In response to such statements from senators, the Move Forward Party has offered the lawmakers an opportunity to put that rhetoric into action. On 14 July, just a day after failing in their first attempt at the premiership, the party submitted a draft amendment to the constitution to remove Section 272 – the item that empowers the Senate to participate in the prime minister selection process.
In the public realm, attempts by senators to insulate themselves from criticism have proven ineffective so far. For much of the Thai public, there appears to be no difference between a non-vote or abstention and an explicit rejection of Pita’s premiership bid.
Online protestors have begun to dig into the senators’ histories, looking to unearth past activities seen as immoral or even criminal in order to publicly shame them. They have also taken to Twitter with the hashtag #ธุรกิจสว, or “Senator’s business”, to call for boycotts of businesses linked to senators and their families. Within hours of the 13 July vote, the campaign was already the top trending hashtag on Thai Twitter.
Some senators have attempted to fight back against the online pressure campaign, calling it a “witch hunt” and threatening online critics with defamation charges. However, these attempts are unlikely to dissuade online criticism, said James Buchanan, an independent analyst of Thai politics.
“[Once] these things go viral on Twitter and Facebook,” he said, “although they might try, it’s not going to do anything to stop the tide of criticism.”
While the Senate may be powerless to stem the wave of public outrage their votes have unleashed, the Thai public and Move Forward are likely equally powerless to change outcomes in the upper house, according to Napon.
“I don’t see protests as playing a significant role in shaping the Senate’s vote choice, since they have already demonstrated their stance on 13 July,” he said.
This impotence of public pressure to impact the Senate’s voting behaviour was on full display during the 19 July vote to determine whether Pita would be allowed to repeatedly submit himself as a candidate for prime minister, which he lost by even more votes than his initial premiership bid.
The Move Forward Party’s attempt to amend Section 272 of the constitution has equally slim chances of succeeding without the support of other parties in its embattled coalition, observed Termsak.
“Pheu Thai already said it is not supporting [the amendment], and that this is the Move Forward Party’s own initiative taken without consultation in the eight-party coalition,” he said, noting that Move Forward’s coalition partners would likely abstain if the amendment came to a vote.
The chances of Move Forward finding enough votes for their constitutional amendment in the Senate are also low, despite the stated positions and past voting records of many senators on the issue.
“In the past, [during] the first attempt to amend this constitution, this particular provision, there were 56 senators who supported the idea [of revoking Section 272],” said Termsak, though he thought it was unlikely these senators would vote the same way at this time.
In the end, it may be pressure on the senators from their peers, rather than from the public or from elected members of parliament, that plays the more significant role in determining how senators vote in the future, he added.
“[There’s] a lot of pressure among their peers, among senators,” Termsak said. “These senators have their own very tight-knit connections, and they depend on each other for patronage, and that is a very valuable patronage connection [they] must try to preserve.”