New Thai government may last years if it passes first major test

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha kept his job as premier after March's disputed general election, the first since 2014 when he seized power in a coup and became the country's leader. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - The first real test of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's razor thin majority will be whether his government can pass key legislation such as the January budget.

Although the opposition and some analysts doubt the unwieldy, 19-party coalition will survive, others say the powerful combination of the military-backed Constitution, lawsuits against the opposition and so-called "money politics" could keep Mr Prayut in power longer than many expect.

The 2020 budget will be crucial, said Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood, an expert on Thai politics and a visiting fellow at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

"The main task for the government is to manage its own coalition and stick together," Dr Punchada said. "The opposition will try to delay the passing of the Bill but it would likely pass with flying colours because the ruling coalition still has the majority."

Mr Prayut kept his job as premier after March's disputed general election, the first since 2014 when he seized power in a coup and became the country's leader. The former army chief is backed by a coalition led by a pro-junta party and the junta-appointed Senate.


His return marks a victory for the military and royalist elite in Bangkok, who have used the courts or coups to overturn election results for more than a decade to prevent exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra or his allies from retaining power.

There have been a dozen military coups in Thailand, and Mr Prayut has gone further than any recent coup maker to stay in power by transitioning into an elected leader.

But his new government faces the slowest economic growth since 2014 and a large opposition made up of critics who see his return as an extension of army rule.

The military-backed Constitution and the junta-appointed Senate are the key mechanisms that the government can use when Mr Prayut's absolute executive power as junta leader ends in the coming weeks.

The charter allows the 250-member Senate to join the 500-member Lower House in voting for a prime minister, amending the Constitution, and passing any legislation deemed relating to the country's vaguely defined "reform" agenda.

In an event that the ruling coalition - with only a four-seat majority - fails to reach a majority to pass a Bill, a parliamentary committee can declare the Bill has a reform purpose and bring in the senators, who will likely vote in favour of Mr Prayut's administration.

If his coalition loses its majority, Mr Prayut could simply form another government with the help of the sizable junta proxy party and the Senate, which make up the majority in any joint house votes.

A high level of money politics - pledges of spending on policies and other priorities championed by parties or individual lawmakers - will help win support and strengthen the coalition, according to Mr Prajak Kongkirati, head of the politics department at Thammasat University in Bangkok.

But a coalition this large is unlikely to last its four-year term, he said.

"Money politics will be more prevalent because it needs to make sure the coalition parties stick together," he said. "Every vote counts in this slim majority government."

However Mr Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, deputy spokesman of pro-junta Palang Pracharath party, denied allegations of "money politics".

"We never use money to buy or influence any votes - this is just rhetoric to discredit the party," Mr Thanakorn said in a phone interview. "People say that our coalition will not last but I disagree. Good management and cooperation is the key for any strong coalition, and we have that."

The opposition has also been hit with legal cases, including Mr Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the head of the popular Future Forward party.

He's suspended from Parliament over a media shareholding case, and faces potential imprisonment over a sedition charge.

The lawsuits, like ones against Mr Thanathorn, created an impression the pro-junta coalition is more stable compared to the opposition, said Dr Kevin Hewison, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on Thai politics.

"If they somehow manage to survive the first two years, they could end up completing their term," said ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute's Dr Punchada. "That'd surprise everyone."

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