BANGKOK - Thailand’s new parliament voted on Wednesday (June 5) to give a fresh term to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, three months after its landmark election.
In the joint sitting of the elected 500-seat House of Representatives and appointed 250-seat Senate, Mr Prayut trumped rival prime minister nominee Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit by by 500 votes to 244.
Prior to the decision, rival politicians sparred in a marathon debate not seen in the past five years under military rule. The 11-hour session, as well as open vote after that, was broadcast live on television.
Mr Prayut, a former army chief who has helmed the ruling junta since staging a coup in 2014, was nominated by Palang Pracharath Party. Prior to the vote, it had spent weeks cobbling together a 19-party coalition with a slim Lower House majority of 254 seats. The party managed to cross the threshold only because of the last minute addition of the 53-seat Democrat Party on Tuesday (June 4). The Democrat decision, however, triggered a protest from former Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, who resigned as a member of parliament on Wednesday before the joint House sitting.
Mr Abhisit had vowed before the March 24 election not to support Mr Prayut for premier. He said in a press conference outside the rented auditorium where parliament was convening: “This is the only way I can keep my dignity – not just my dignity, but the dignity of the Democrat leader.”
Democrat veteran Chuan Leekpai oversaw proceedings on Wednesday as Lower House speaker.
The losing prime minister nominee, Mr Thanathorn, heads the youthful Future Forward Party which bagged the third-largest share of seats during the election. He was nominated by a seven-party anti-junta front despite being suspended from parliamentary proceedings by the Constitutional Court, which is scrutinising him for an alleged election infringement. Politicians from the ruling Pheu Thai Party, which topped the election by winning 136 Lower House seats, threw its weight behind Mr Thanathorn.
Mr Prayut was also absent in parliament by virtue of not being a legislator.
On Wednesday, members of the anti-junta coalition argued unsuccessfully for the two prime ministerial candidates to be present to lay out their visions for the Kingdom. They also argued that the junta chief should not be allowed to continue his premiership, to let the coup-prone country return to normalcy.
Mr Thanathorn told reporters outside parliament: “Coups just push the country to a dead end. We need a parliament that represents the people, not support those who want to cling on to power.”
Mr Prayut’s supporters rose to his defence.
“He came to the rescue when we were facing difficulties… and he did well where other leaders failed,” said Palang Pracharath member of parliament Korranit Ngamsukonratana.
Pro-Prayut senator Seri Suwanphanon declared: “I support democratic dictatorship but not fake democracy.”
The deck was stacked in Mr Prayut’s favour. The new Constitution drafted under military watch allows someone who did not run in an election to be prime minister. The junta-appointed Senate, packed with military or police officers, also assured Mr Prayut of backing from at least one-third of the parliament.
Supporters of the royalist military faction argue Mr Prayut’s triumph will give the riven Kingdom much needed stability. His opponents say it merely prolongs military rule under the guise of democracy.