The rise and fall of the minnow parties
Now the charter court has issued a ruling on the election system, all political parties are effectively gearing up for the next poll. With all in place, some pundits even entertain the idea that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha might call for a House dissolution at any time.
The charter court ruling on Wednesday does not only herald the drumbeat of a general election; it spells doom for small parties. The ruling, which favoured the use of 100, instead of 500, as the divisor to calculate party-list MPs, extremely upset small parties as they realised their own extinction was imminent.
It's expected that the new election law will take effect later this month or sometime next month after it receives royal endorsement. The regulations for the next election in May will differ from the general election of 2019. For the upcoming vote, the Election Commission (EC) gave its nod to the two-ballot system -- 400 for constituent MPs and 100 for list MPs, instead of the one-ballot which is 350:150. As we know, the two-ballot system will benefit large and middle-sized parties.
The previous calculation based on 500 as the divisor, together with the EC's astounding MP calculation system, enabled a party that won some 30,000 votes, instead of the original 70,000+ votes, to have one list MP. Such a system was a windfall for the minnow parties that received a smaller number of votes.
This peculiar voting and vote calculation system indeed was pennies from heaven for the then Future Forward Party (FFP), which initially won 30 seats from the constituent contest but was able to claim one-third of the 150 available list MPs, or 50, the highest number of list MPs in parliament. This made them emerge as the third-biggest party after Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath (PPRP) in the 2019 poll. The FFP was dissolved and reincarnated as the Move Forward Party (MFP), with a new executive team under Pita Limjaroenrat.
At the same time, Pheu Thai won the most seats in the 2019 poll but, due to the EC's opaque calculation formula, was stripped of list MPs. This was a slap in voters' faces from the beginning, while the political system was substantially weakened. The Prayut regime has support from the junta-sponsored Senate which has the power to name a prime minister.
The general election in 2019 will go down in the country's political history as one that saw the rise of minnow parties. Ten small-scale parties joined the coalition, serving as an enabling organ that helped Gen Prayut maintain power. With their help, the PPRP, Bhumjaithai and Democrats could form a coalition, albeit with a paper-thin majority.
The rise of bantamweight parties nevertheless proved to be a costly partnership as the minnow camps shamelessly took full advantage of the coalition's dire need for stability. After missing out on cabinet positions, these little parties eyed seats in the House panels so they could divert some state budget to their areas, or employ nepotism for unjustifiable gains, or ask for just plain cash.
For its own survival, the struggling coalition government had no choice but to give in to their demands. Its tough times, particularly the no-confidence censure, were a golden opportunity for these greedy politicians. As all the votes were counted, the Prayut administration could not take the risk and yielded to the latter's hard bargaining.
Capt Thamanat Prompow, then secretary-general of the PPRP and right-hand man of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, was assigned to deal with the minnows. At certain points, he even labelled the micro parties as "political hustlers". Ahead of a censure debate when the minnows heightened their bargain, Capt Thamanat likened the minnows' cash demands to "bananas" and himself as a monkey-raiser, feeding "bananas" to calm them down.
"I used several bananas to ensure they behaved," Capt Thamanat was quoted telling the media.
This explains why the minnows were loyal to Gen Prawit and his sidekick, rather than Gen Prayut. It is reported that the minnows always met Gen Prawit at his office, the Paa Roi Tor (Forest Complex Connecting Five Provinces) Foundation, and this faction of the PPRP was referred to as "Paa Roi Tor".
However, when his relations with Gen Prayut soured, Capt Thamanat wanted to use the pocket-sized parties to ditch the premier; but he was let down. And he revealed all the dirty business being done, including a monthly payroll from Gen Prawit which is still being examined by anti-graft agencies.
When the new election rule comes into force, there will be fewer political parties in the new parliament, probably half the current 30 parties. It's expected that the new election rule will benefit Pheu Thai most.
The party could have some 30 MPs added under its roof. The Ruam Thai Sang Chart -- now officially known as the United Thai Nation Party (UTN), which is to welcome Gen Prayut as its candidate for the premiership, will share some of the election cake based on the new system given the premier's popularity in certain parts of the country.
It's the MFP that will be hit hardest by the calculation method, while minnow parties will have no place. The use of 100 as a divisor requires a party to win a minimum of 350,000 votes to gain one list MP. For some small parties, such a goal is an almost insurmountable task compared to last time when they did it with 30,000 votes.
What is going on shows a compromise between the powers-that-be and the opposition Pheu Thai, who have effectively dumped the smaller parties as they no longer care about their support.
This is no surprise. After the 2019 general election, Pheu Thai distanced itself greatly from from the FFP's monarchy reform campaign that referenced Section 112.
Despite both parties now collaborating well in the opposition, their relationship will not be so cordial when the two parties have to fight against each other for the same political base.
On whether the MFP can make a comeback. That depends on how well the party, which is popular among the younger generation, can adapt its tactics during such a difficult time.
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor at the Bangkok Post.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.