Weed bill opens coalition rifts before poll
Now that the government is on the last lap of its present tenure, with the next election on the horizon, politicians are rolling up their sleeves ahead of a renewed political battle for hearts and minds.
Unless the government seeks an early dissolution of parliament, the next election, as scheduled by the Election Commission (EC), will be held on March 23 next year. Amid tough competition, political parties -- even those in the coalition -- have used every tactic to maximise their gains, without caring about unity.
Over the past three years, Bhumjaithai -- a medium-sized party which did well in its first showing at the polls to win 51 House seats -- has become stronger after it welcomed 14 more MPs from Pheu Thai and the Move Forward Party (MFP). The party, under Deputy Prime Minister and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, is expected to be a big winner in the 2023 election.
Like it or not, Bhumjaithai has reaped success from its cannabis policy. And it is continuing to opt for extreme populism, especially with its proposal for a zero-interest student loan fund which has drawn heavy criticism.
Fears of a Bhumjaithai victory prompted the Democrats and the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) to breach political etiquette and withdraw their support for their coalition partner's much-touted updated cannabis and hemp bill. They claimed the bill still lacks measures to regulate cannabis use and the House of Representatives voted 198 to 136 with 12 abstentions to withdraw it to make improvements.
The Democrats subsequently dismissed allegations of a hidden agenda, arguing that the bill is "too loose" and, if enacted, would result in social problems.
However, many observers believe the backtracking is politically motivated by fears the bill would enable Bhumjaithai to claim full success in decriminalising marijuana, its flagship 2019 vote-winning policy, just in time to scoop up ballots at the next election.
During the previous non-confidence debate, some MPs tried to sabotage the bill and embarrass Mr Anutin, showing a clip of him mentioning the unrestricted use of cannabis during a campaign speech.
Mr Anutin was seen telling a crowd: "[Once the policy is implemented] you can freely smoke weed. There is only one condition, you don't set foot outside the house."
The MPs accused Mr Anutin of endorsing recreational cannabis use, which ran contrary to his campaign pledges that legalisation would be for medicinal use only.
Despite fears of a backlash, it is known that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had no choice but to bend to Bhumjaithai over the matter because he was in dire need of its support amid the hostile political atmosphere ahead of the no-confidence debate in July.
However, the haste in pushing for the removal of cannabis from the narcotics list backfired. The de-listing took place in June in the absence of effective laws regulating its use, with reports of underage consumption, and driving under the influence of the drug soon following.
Thai embassies in several countries abroad issued warnings to Thai passport holders not to carry products with cannabis ingredients or they might face legal action.
But the withdrawal of the coalition parties, particularly the Democrats, from the bill is derived largely from the fact that Bhumjaithai is emerging as a force in the southern constituencies which have been the Democrats' political strongholds in the past. In fact, the Democrats have been losing southerners' support for quite some time.
The party was forced to share seats in the last election. It won 22 out of 50 seats in total, followed by the PPRP (13), Bhumjaithai (8), the Prachachat Party (6); and the Action Coalition for Thailand Party (1). As mentioned, Bhumjaithai with its cannabis policy success has strong potential in this region.
It should be noted that the EC has increased the number of MPs for the southern region from 50 to 58, and Mr Anutin has made it clear he aims to win at least 20.
Other parties including Prachachart which dominated the deep South in the 2019 election, as well as the PPRP and the MFP, cannot be overlooked either. If this trend cannot be reversed, the Democrats will be a big loser in the region and face even tougher challenges in others.
Some observers believe the party may be able to win only 20 seats in total. Under the 2017 charter, if the party gains fewer than 25 MPs, as many predict, it would not be able to field Jurin Laksanawisit as a candidate for premier. So, the next election is a matter of life and death for the country's oldest party.
With such an uncertain political future, the Democrats have every reason to seek to weaken Bhumjaithai. However, this tactic comes far too late. Its last-minute move on the cannabis bill was plainly politically motivated despite the party's staunch denials.
At this stage, it is not clear if the bill can pass in time, given parliamentary procedures. The government's term will expire in six months and Mr Anutin may be resigned to the possibility that the bill will be delayed. But even if the bill gets stuck in limbo, he can still trumpet the party's progressive credentials with a promise to see the bill enacted if it once again takes a position at the top table after another strong showing.
But it is unfortunate that the parties are concerned mainly with their own gains rather than the overall public good in the use of cannabis and hemp. We can only hope that after the dust settles, politicians will focus on the bill and make rational decisions with their chief consideration being the public interest.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.