PRIME MINISTER, LEGISLATURE AND ELECTIONS IN THAILAND

THAI PRIME MINISTER

The head of state is the Thai monarch. The head of the government is the prime minister. He or she officially becomes prime minister when the king signs a royal decree and the new prime minister takes an oath before the king. There are no elections for the heads of state and government. Under the constitution, the prime minister is selected from among the members of the House of Representatives following elections. Officially, the king appoints the prime minister, who was normally the leader of the party that had an outright majority or organized a majority coalition in the House of Representatives. The prime minister is limited to two four-year terms.

The prime minister hold the real powers of appointment and removal, which he exercises in the name of the king. He countersigns royal decrees and wields a wide range of executive powers, including the power to declare a national emergency to ensure "national or public safety or national economic security or to avert public calamity." The legality of an emergency decree has to be validated by the National Assembly. The prime minister can or lift martial law, declare war with the advice and consent of parliament, and conclude peace treaties, armistices, and other treaties--all in the king's name. [Library of Congress]

The Prime Ministers’ residence in Bangkok is known as Government House. Candidates for prime minister need not come from the National Assembly. There is no limit on the number of non-elected cabinet members. The cabinet is called the Council of Ministers It often has around 35 members to 45 members

The Office of the Prime Minister is the nerve center of the government. With the assistance of several cabinet-rank ministers attached to the office and of the Secretariat of the Prime Minister, this office monitors, coordinates, and supervises the activities of all government agencies and state enterprises. The secretariat is headed by a cabinet-rank secretary general, who supervises the work of agencies attached to the prime minister's office. Among these agencies are the Bureau of the Budget, the National Security Council, the Department of Central Intelligence, the Civil Service Commission, and the National Economic and Social Development Board.

Executive branch: chief of state: King Phumiphon Adunyadet, also spelled Bhumibol Adulyadej (since 9 June 1946); head of government: Prime Minister Yinglak Chinnawat, also spelled Yingluck Shinawatra (since 8 August 2011).

There can be six deputy prime ministers: 1) Deputy Prime Minister Charuphong Rueangsusan also spelled Jarupong Ruangsuwan (since 28 October 2012); 2) Deputy Prime Minister Chaloem Yubamrung also spelled Chalerm Yubamrung (since 28 October 2012; 3) Deputy Prime Minister Chumphon Sinlapa-acha also spelled Chumpol Silpa-archa (since 28 October 2012); 4) Deputy Prime Minister Kittirat Na Ranong (since 28 October 2012); 5) Deputy Prime Minister Phongthep Therkanchana also spelled Phongthep Thepkanchana (since 28 October 2012); 6) Deputy Prime Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi (since 28 October 2012); 7) Deputy Prime Minister Suraphong Towijakchaikun also spelled Surapong Tovichakchaikul (since 28 October 2012)

Thai King

The head of state is the Thai monarch. The head of the government is the prime minister. He or she officially becomes prime minister when the king signs a royal decree and the new prime minister takes an oath before the king. There are no elections for the heads of state and government. The monarchy is hereditary and based on the Palace Law of Succession enacted in 1924.

While the King of Thailand has little direct power, under the constitution King Bhumibol is a symbol of national identity and unity; indeed, the Thai King commands enormous popular respect and moral authority, both of which he has leveraged on a few rare occasions to resolve political crises that have threatened national stability. In more recent years however, he has maintained a more hands-off approach, urging Thais to learn to resolve their differences in an amicable way for the good of their country.

The Thai constitution states that the king is “enthroned in a position of revered worship” and is not to be exposed “to any sort of accusation or action.” A Thai school textbook reads: “All our kings have promoted the prosperity of the realm, have been the leaders in defending and protecting the country, fighting the country’s enemies while caring for the peacefulness and happiness of the population who so inherited the realm in which we live. This is why all Thais should remind themselves of the superior goodness of the Thai king.”

Council of Ministers in Thailand

The cabinet, the center of Thai political power, consists of more than 40 members, including the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, and deputy ministers. Individually and collectively the members are accountable to the House of Representatives and have to retain its confidence. The cabinet is required to resign en masse if a no-confidence motion against it is passed by the House. Under the Constitution, cabinet members are not allowed to hold political posts as part of an effort to strengthen the political party system. [Library of Congress ++]

Under the customary rules of parliamentary government, Thailand could have a prime minister whose party or electoral alliance had earned the mandate of this office outright by winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Whether or not anyone would command a majority in the next election was uncertain, given the highly fragmented political party system. ++

The main ministerial positions are for: agriculture; commerce; communications; defense; education; finance; foreign affairs; industry; interior; justice; public health; science, technology, and energy; and university affairs. The heads of these ministries (except for justice; science, technology, and energy; and university affairs) are aided by one or more cabinet-rank deputy ministers. Each ministry is divided into departments, divisions, and sections. Traditionally, the ministries of defense, interior, and finance have been regarded as the most desirable by aspiring politicians and generals. In the 1980s, the ministries of agriculture and cooperatives, industry, and communications grew in stature as the economic value of resources steadily increased. ++ Legislature in Thailand (National Assembly)

Legislature: The bicameral National Assembly or Rathasapha consisted of the Senate or Wuthisapha and the House of Representatives or Sapha Phuthaen Ratsadon. The new parliament after an election is opened by the king or crown prince. Lawmakers dressed in white uniforms attend a ceremony at a royal hall. [Source: CIA World Factbook ^^]

The 500-member House of Representatives is the lower house parliament. A total of 375 seats are directly elected. A total of 125 seats, termed “party list” seats, are filled based on a percentage of the national vote. Members serve four-year terms. Before the 2001 election the parliament had 380 seats. Before the new constitution in 2007 it had 500 seats, 400 from the constituencies and 100 from proportional representation system of party lists.

The 150-seat Senate is the upper house. A total of 77 are elected, one for each of Thailand’s provinces, and 77 are appointed by a committee made up of judges and independent government bodies. Members serve six-year terms The current system was adopted in a new constitution adopted after the 2006 coup. Before then the members were selected in direct elections for the first time in 2000 in accordance withe reforms made in the 1997 constitution,. Before 1997 the upper house members were appointed.

All legislative matters of national policy receive the approval of the National Assembly and the signature of the king before becoming law. Traditionally, the legislature has been unable to successfully challenge the tradition of bureaucratic dominance over state affairs, and has been overshadowed by the executive branch. The National Assembly continues to be an instrument of cabinet rule, with its legislative agenda issuing for the most part from the executive branch. [Library of Congress]

A three fifths majority is necessary to amend the constitution and block censure motions. As sometimes happens in Taiwan, fights occasionally break out in the Thai legislature. Once the deputy leader of the Chart Thai party had to be kept from throwing his shoe at the Thai Foreign Minister after he read a letter that outlined accusations of corruption and ties with drug dealers.

Traditions of the Thai National Assembly

The National Assembly has traditionally been structured to accommodate both the military and civilian bureaucratic elite and the electorate. The influence of the traditionally powerful bureaucracy was channeled through the Senate, whose members were nominated by the prime minister for pro forma appointment by the king. Up to 85 percent of the Senate membership in the late 1980s was drawn from the armed forces and the police. The intent of this arrangement was to encourage the military to play its traditional political role through the upper house rather than through a coup or countercoup. [Library of Congress, 1980s ++]

Elections to the Senate are non-partisan; registered political party members are disqualified from being senators. In the 1980s, senators served a term of six years, and one-third of them were retired every two years. Retirees could be reappointed for an unlimited number of terms. A senator was required to be at least thirty-five years of age, a Thai citizen by birth, and not a member of any political party. Other membership qualifications were broadly phrased, including the requirement that appointees have "knowledge and experience in various branches of learning or affairs which will be useful to the administration of the state." ++

The House of Representatives members represented the populace. They were elected for a four-year term by direct suffrage and secret ballot at the ratio of a member to each 150,000 inhabitants. Each province (changwat), regardless of population, was entitled to at least one seat. A constituency with a population in excess of 75,000 also qualified for a seat. A candidate had to be at least twenty-five years of age, a Thai citizen by birth, and a member of a political party. As a rule, an election had to be held within sixty days from the expiration of the four-year term of the lower house. When the House was dissolved by royal decree (on the recommendation of the prime minister), a new election was required within ninety days. ++

Functions of the Thai National Assembly

The two chambers conducted their business separately under their respective presidents (speakers) and vice presidents, who were chosen from among the membership. Under the Constitution, the president of the Senate was automatically the speaker of the National Assembly and in that capacity was empowered to play a strategic role in the selection of the prime minister. [Library of Congress. Late 1980s]

The lapse of the transitory provisions, however, did not affect the Senate's power to address such matters as the appointment of a regent, the royal succession, reconsideration of a bill vetoed by the prime minister, constitutional interpretation, a declaration of war, the ratification of treaties, the appointment of members of the Constitutional Tribunal, and constitutional amendments. In joint sessions senators also could render their opinion on any aspect of affairs of state to the prime minister when requested to do so by the latter. Such opinion was advisory and nonbinding. ++

Bills could be introduced only by the Council of Ministers or the members of the House of Representatives. Major legislation originated mostly in the cabinet, but only the lower house, with the prior endorsement of the prime minister, could initiate an appropriations bill. An ordinary bill had to be sponsored by a political party and endorsed by at least twenty party members. Bills were passed by a majority, the quorum being not less than one-half of the total members of either house in which the bills originated. ++

A bill passed by the House was sent to the Senate. The Senate was required to act on an ordinary bill within ninety days and on an appropriations bill within sixty days. If the Senate failed to act in either case, the bill was considered to have been consented to by the Senate, unless the lower chamber had extended the time. Disagreements between the two houses were resolved by a joint committee. When the dispute pertained to an appropriations bill and the lower house voted to reaffirm the bill it had originally passed, the prime minister was required to present the bill to the king for his assent and promulgation. At that point, the prime minister could exercise his important legislative role. He might advise the king to approve or veto the bill; in the latter event, the National Assembly needed two-thirds of its total membership to override the royal objections (actually the prime minister's objections). ++

Members of the assembly, who had parliamentary immunity, could question formally a cabinet minister or the prime minister on any appropriate issue except one in which executive privilege was involved. A motion of no-confidence against either an individual minister or the cabinet en masse could be initiated only by members of the lower house. Such a motion required an affirmative vote of at least one-half of the lower house membership. Senators could not take part in no-confidence debates. ++

Elections in Thailand

There are no elections for the heads of state and government. The monarchy is hereditary and based on the Palace Law of Succession enacted in 1924. Under the constitution, the prime minister is selected from among the members of the House of Representatives following elections. Officially, the king appoints the prime minister, who was normally the leader of the party that had an outright majority or organized a majority coalition in the House of Representatives.

General elections to elect members of the House of Representative have to be held within four years. They are held after a successful no confidence motion or when the government in power calls elections. The last one was in July 2011. The next has to be held before July 2015.

The last elections for the Senate was held on March 2, 2008. The next one will be held in March 2014. A total of 74 senators were appointed on February 19, 2008 by a seven-member committee headed by the chief of the Constitutional Court; 76 senators were elected on March 2, 2008. Elections to the Senate are non-partisan; registered political party members are disqualified from being senators. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Ahead of elections in July 2011, the government passed several major amendments on electoral laws in February 2011, transforming the constituency vote from multiple-seats-per-constituency to single-seat-per-constituency, reducing the number of constituency MPs, and increasing the proportional party list MPs. In the previous general elections in 2007, the Democrat Party had lost the constituency vote but won the proportional party list vote. Before 2001 the general elections were based on multi-seat constituencies.

The 500 seats up for grabs in the July 2011 general election included 375 party-list seats constituencies, and 125 under the additional Member System (proportional system). Under the proportional system candidates are chosen from lists according to the proportion of votes each party receives nationwide on a separate ballot.

According to Thai law elections must be held between 45 days and 60 days after the desolation of the House of Representatives. They have to be officially endorsed by the king and have to be held within 60 days of a royal decree. On election day tens of thousands of police are stationed at polling station. Alcohol is sometimes banned in places where elections are held. There is sometimes violence on election day. Images of elephants casting mock ballots have been shown to encourage people to get out and vote.

In the 2001 election there were 3,722 candidates for 400 parliament seats. In the December 2007 elections, the first after the 2006 coup and held after many delays, over 5,000 candidates from 39 parties took part but was mainly as showdown the People’s Power Party (PPP), comprised of Thaksin supporters, and The Democratic Party.

Elections in 2011

The House of Representatives was dissolved on May 10, 2011. The election was scheduled for July 3, 2011. The 500 seats up for grabs included 375 party-listed seat constituencies for individual candidates, and 125 under the additional Member System (proportional system). Under the proportional system candidates were chosen from lists according to the proportion of votes each party receives nationwide on a separate ballot.

The Pheu Thai Party won a landslide victory, winning 265 seats in the 500 seat House of Representatives of Thailand. It was only the second time in Thai political history that a single party won a parliamentary majority (the first time was by Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party) .The voter turnout was just over 75 percent. The election was widely see as a referendum on Thaksin. Abhisit stepped down as Democratic Party leader, taking responsibility for his party’s loss.

Results of the July 3, 2011 House of Representatives of Thailand Thai general election (seats and percentage of the vote): 1) Pheu Thai, 265 seats (204 constituency, 61 proportional), 53 Percent; 2) Democrat Party, seats 159 (115 constituency, 44 proportional), 31 percent; 3) Bhumjaithai, 34 seats (29 constituency, 5 proportional), 6.8 percent ; 4) Chartthaipattana, 19 seats (15 constituency, 4 proportional), 3.8 percent; 5) Chart Pattana Puea Pandin, 7 seats (5 constituency, 2 proportional), 1.4 percent; 6) Phalang Chon, 7 seats (6constituency, 1 proportional), 1.4 percent; 7) Rak Thailand, 4 seats0.8 percent; 8) Matubhum, 2 seats, 0.4 percent; 9) Rak Santi, 1 seat 0.2 percent; 10) Mahachon, 1 seat 0.2 percent ; 10) New Democracy, 1 0.2 percent. [Source: Wikipedia]

There was a long interval between the time of the election and the declaration that the Pheu Thai Party officially won. The election results were finally acknowledged on July 27 , after the Election Commission dealt with a great number of objections over alleged irregularities. Reelections and recount were ordered to be held in several provinces, due to electoral fraud discovered by the Commission. Overall though there was relatively violence and fraud reported in connection with the elections. The first session of the National Assembly was convoked on August 1 at Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and its state opening was held at the same time. [Ibid]

The Thai military said that it accepted the outcome of the election, easing fears of a coup or some other military intervention and signaling that maybe the political crisis that started with Thaksin’s ouster in 2006 was finally over. Gen. Prawit Wongsuwon said: “I have talked to military leaders. We will allow politicians to work it out. The military will not get involved. The people have spoken clearly so the military cannot do anything. We accept it. After the election the Democratic Party decided to keep Abhisit Vejjajiva as its leader.

Elections 2001. Elections in 2005, Elections in 2006, Elections in 2007 and other elections, See History

Voters and Voter Rights As Outlined by the Thai Constitution

In Thailand suffrage is universal and compulsory. There are 45 million eligible voters in Thailand. Voting is mandatory, but violators are seldom prosecuted. The voting age is 18. The voter turnout at general elections in 2011 was just over 75 percent. The voter turnout in the general elections in 2005 was 70 percent and 69 percent in 2001

The Thai people are afforded opportunities to have political participation under the Constitution, as follows: 1) An eligible voter has the right to vote in a referendum, as in the case of the public referendum on the draft Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand, B.E. 2550 (2007); 2) A person may enjoy the liberty to unite and form a political party for the purpose of carrying out the political will of the people and engaging in political activities for the fulfilling of such will through a democratic form of government with the King as Head of State, as provided in this Constitution; 3) A person has the right to resist peacefully an act committed for the acquisition of the power to rule the country by a means which is not in accordance with the modes provided in this Constitution; [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department*]

4) Eligible voters of not less than 10,000 in number have the right to submit a petition to the President of the National Assembly to consider draft bills, as provided in this Constitution; 5) Eligible voters of not less than 20,000 in number have the right to lodge with the President of the Senate a complaint in order for the Senate to pass a resolution removing officeholders from office. The complaint shall clearly itemize offenses committed by such persons. The rules, procedures, and conditions for the lodging of a complaint shall be in accordance with the organic law on counter corruption. *

Election Campaigns in Thailand

The campaign period in Thailand is six weeks. "In the freewheeling campaign for Prime Minister" in 1995, Frank Gibnet wrote in Time magazine, "a former top general is stumping the country in the company of a midget; a leading banker declared his candidacy draped in cobras; and of the front runner, a long-standing political boss...claims that he'll pave every village road in four years."

Campaigns feature mudslinging and accusations. Charges are clams are often untrue and libel and slander lawsuits are not uncommon. Sometimes it seems that Thais have short memories when it comes to shortcomings of their politicians. A candidate involved in a bribery sandal one year can reemerge later as corruption-fighting reformist. In the countryside, village headman often advise the people in their villages on who to vote for.

Campaigns features posters, cut outs and catchy slogans. The candidates often have their photographs airbrushed or touched up so they look 20 years younger. Candidates stump on the back of elephants decorated with banners bearing the candidate's name and campaign slogans and to show their solidarity with Thailand’s national symbol. Others have carried models of fish traps “to catch votes.”

Jamie James wrote in Conde Nast Traveler, “There was a national election going on while I was in Bangkok: Campaign posters were everywhere, showing candidates in heroic or histrionic poses. Sathorn Road was plastered with images of a strikingly handsome candidate from the Democrat party, airbrushed and retouched until he looked like a singer in a boy band, with cherry-red lips and twinkling eyes and teeth. Another candidate, a mustachioed massage-parlor magnate, posed threateningly with a sledgehammer, taking symbolic aim against corruption. The popular prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, a tough-talking communications tycoon, opted for a pensive portrait in sweats, the vigorous leader as regular guy. [Source: Jamie James, Conde Nast Traveler, March 2006]

Election Abuses, Vote Buying and Violence in Thailand

Vote buying used to be widespread and conducted in the open. In the old days a wads of cash were clipped to campaign brochures. In the 1990s the usual cost was about $12 a vote. One family of six told Associated Press that each member had received 300 baht ($12) from a Chart Thai canvasser two days before the election. The Chart Thai candidate won. Nothing stops voters from taking the money and voting for the candidate they want.

It is not unusual for a winning prime minister to spend $1 billion to win an election. The going price for a Parliament representatives who is willing to sell themselves and change parties is $400,000.

Violence has traditionally been a fixture of Thai elections. In the months leading up to the 2001 election, 18 party rivals and campaign workers were killed in gangland-style shoot-outs. Many candidates carried good luck amulets and wore bullet-proof vests. There were also reports of voting stations being seized. In the 1995 elections, police near the Myanmar border kept their eye on about 100 "hitmen," whose job it was to intimidate candidates and voters. In recent years elections have been relatively free of violence.

Candidates often include wives of cabinet ministers, provincial godfathers and out and out gangsters. One scholar counted 55,000 electoral misdeeds performed by party volunteers. In Senate election in 2000, 78 of the 200 winning candidate were rejected due to allegations of electoral malpractice. Among this who were rejected wives of cabinet ministers. New elections were called with in 35 of Thailand’s 76 provinces within 60 days.

Election Reforms in the Late 1990s and Early 2000s

New election laws intended to clean up Thai politics were made part of the 1997 Constitution. A five-member Election Commission was set up and given the authority to disqualify candidates, enforce spending limits, overturn tallies and call for new elections. Eliminating vote buying was one of the main objectives of the reforms.

According to the new laws candidates can not give out money or merchandise. They can hand out pamphlets with their background but the pamphlet it must have no political party affiliation. The candidates can introduce themselves at rallies but can’t advertise. They are not even supposed to express their policies. Candidates breaking these and other rules can be disqualified. Elections with irregularities can be declared invalid, and a new election held.

The strict election laws were supposed to be a model for the region. The Senate by-election in 2000 was the first election to be held under them. Only 122 of the 200 candidates that won were approved by the Election Commission. Of the 78 others, some were disqualified for breeching the rules; others won in elections with voter irregularities and were allowed to run again. Five rounds of elections were held, 145 days elapsed and $5 million was spent until the commission was satisfied.

In 2001 lower house elections that chose Prime Minister Thaksin, scores of candidates were disqualified for a variety or irregularities. Reelections were ordered for 62 seats where fraud was recorded, including 32 places where Thaksin’s Thai Rai Thai had won. Despite the efforts to clean up the elections, vote buying and other irregularities were still rampant. Some described the 2001 election as the “dirtiest ever.” The reforms greatly delayed the release of official vote counts and results as the watchdog committee had to spend time to investigate allegations of voter irregularities and conduct new elections.

After new campaign laws went into effect in 2001, vote-buying payments were made more discreetly. An estimated $500 million was spent in vote buying in that election, more than any other previous election. Among those that were disqualified for vote buying was a politician who gave out clocks with his face embossed on them. The reform laws established a 1 million baht spending limit. It is believed that each candidate that had a reasonable chance of winning spent at least 20 million baht.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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