This past week saw parliamentary chaos over whether or not to establish a committee examining the now-defunct National Council for Peace & Order’s usage of Section 44, which permitted the NCPO chief to issue absolute executive commands.
The fiasco went briefly as follows: the government initially lost the vote, as six members of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s coalition partner, the Democrat Party, voted with the opposition. The government coalition then went into meltdown. It first called for a re-vote, which the opposition protested by walking out. Prayut then called for a unity dinner between the key figures in the coalition (at which they were then blasted for dining on shark fin soup). A subsequent revote the following week resulted in a defeat for the motion as renegade opposition MPs refused to walk out. It later emerged that one of the government MPs voting was on the run from an arrest warrant and had somehow sneaked into the chamber unnoticed by police to vote.
If it sounds like a mess, that’s because it was. And on this mess, I would like to make three points.
The first is that there is no good reason for the government to have so virulently opposed the establishment of this committee. If the prime minister is so confident that his Section 44 orders were beneficial for the country, then surely he would not be against a level of scrutiny?
And even if he were so opposed to the NCPO’s actions being scrutinized, then the means which he had to undertake to prevent it from happening led to a Pyrrhic victory at best. The motion would only have established a committee; it would then have to produce a report, which would have taken months at minimum, and the report would most likely not have had any binding power. In fact, the report would almost certainly not have changed any perceptions; if it showed Section 44 was abused, it would merely have been preaching to the opposition choir. That the government took such drastic action just to prevent a committee from being established was clearly an overreaction that damaged the government’s image.
Another issue I want to highlight is the fact that the revote was able to happen at all. Speaker Chuan Leekpai had used parliamentary regulation No. 85 to order a revote. This is a translation of the text:
85. Once a vote has been undertaken pursuant to Regulation No. 83 (1), if a member requests a recount of the votes with at least twenty other members in approval, then a recount must be undertaken using the method outlined in Regulation No. 83 (2). In the event that a motion has passed by more than 25 votes, there may not be a recount.
Regulation No. 83 (1) refers to a vote by voting machine, while No. 83 (2) refers to a vote via roll call.
Opposition MPs protested that this regulation only permits a recounting of votes already cast, not a revote. I disagree with the opposition; the parliamentary rules actually require a full revote instead of a recount simply using the votes cast (although admittedly, the practice of doing a so-called “recount” on a separate sitting day is odd, but still not in violation of the rules).
That does not mean that I find this regulation itself satisfactory. In the UK, convention dictates that a motion too similar in substance to one that has been voted upon previously cannot be brought to the House of Commons again. Just a few months ago, Boris Johnson was refused a second vote on his Brexit deal as Speaker John Bercow announced that his decision was “necessary… to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes.” The same should apply to the Thai parliament.
The final point I want to raise is that the root cause of this trouble is, once again, the 2017 constitution. Part of advocating for anything often means endless repetition of a certain argument. One which I have made several times is that the current constitution leads to gridlock, coalitional instability and unseemly politics. The Section 44 saga demonstrates this once again.
Palang Pracharath’s tenuous grip on its unruly coalition was illustrated very clearly. It was said that the reason the renegade Democrats voted in favor of the Section 44 scrutiny proposal was as revenge for the PPRP’s refusal to back former Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to chair a house committee on charter reform. Even during the re-vote, some Democrats still bucked the government’s three-line whip.
But appearances had to be maintained. Prayut had to go out of his way to show forced affection during his displays of unity. There was when he forced the Democrat leader Jurin Laksanawisit to stand next to him as he took questions from reporters. There was, of course, the infamous coalition meet and greet where shark fin soup was served. Yet if anything, the lengths to which the government went to forge an image of coalition unity undermined its own argument.
To underline the point of coalition dependence even further, the prime minister even welcomed back Mongkolkit Suksintharanon to the government coalition. He joined the opposition ranks in August and vowed not to switch sides again, a vow which everyone correctly thought was worth taking with a grain of salt. The government is also in the process of wooing over the New Economics Party, which during the election promised to oppose Prayut’s return to the premiership but has since publicly wavered. The government coalition will continue, but it will have to count on the support of such unprincipled characters.