Old guard prevails in Senate elections
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Old guard prevails in Senate elections

A candidate arrives to cast his vote during the final round of Thailand's national Senate election in Bangkok on Wednesday. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
A candidate arrives to cast his vote during the final round of Thailand's national Senate election in Bangkok on Wednesday. (Photo: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

For those wishing for a wind of change in Thai politics, the Wednesday Senate election was a disappointment. Old power factions made substantial gains, dominating some 70% of the seats for the 200-member Upper House, while those representing the pro-democracy force grabbed just a few.

It's also an embarrassing loss for Pheu Thai and paroled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as Somchai Wongsawat, also a former PM and brother-in-law of the party's de facto leader, was kicked out in the final round. Before the poll was concluded, it was anticipated he would have become the Senate speaker.

Observers said several Senate-elects have solid links with the Bhumjaithai Party (BJP) or its leader, Anutin Charnvirakul.

Such poll results reflect that this country's patron-client system remains strong, and those with power can control the game. To begin with, the number of people joining the race was not that high, about 40,000 from the anticipated 200,000. With low participation, it's easy for mainstream political parties to send in their nominees while manipulation and collusion are at play.

Every party wants to get a slice of the political cake, given the enormous power of the Senate in selecting members of independent agencies and scrutinising the administration, but the BJT -- the third largest party -- easily got a sizeable piece. The pro-democracy and independent factions, meanwhile, won only 24 seats altogether. The fact that the conservative camp still maintains power, albeit transmitting from the junta network to that of BJT, means bleak prospects for charter rewriting since it requires support from at least one-third of the Senate.

But such a BJT victory is no surprise. As a two-time coalition partner since the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration, the party has had the chance to accumulate political clout, compared to Pheu Thai, which has run the country for less than a year. Mr Anutin, while serving as public health minister in the previous government, solidified the health volunteers' network. This may explain why a number of health volunteers joined the race. It's an unprecedented phenomenon.

BJT is a low-profile party, but it is strong in terms of influence, money, and power. With such elements, the party is a magnet for several politicians, and thus, this enables the party to maintain its political stronghold that covers the lower part of the Northeast and part of the South. The Senate race shows that political veteran Newin Chidchob, who is in a behind-the-scenes position, still holds the reins, and the poll results attest to the fact that he is truly a force to be reckoned with.

And the numbers tell all. Bangkok, the capital with the highest population, has only nine senators-elect, as opposed to Buri Ram, which has gained 14. Other provinces under BJT control are among the top 10 with the most senators-elect: Surin has seven, Si Sa Ket and Amnat Charoen each have five, compared to Nakhon Ratchasima, the capital of the Northeast, but not a BJT base, which has just two. In the south, the tiny province of Satun, with a sparse population, has six senators-elect, while Krabi has four.

More importantly, several winners are those close to, if not in, the inner circle of BJT leaders. Among them, the driver of Mr Newin's late father was elected, in addition to former provincial governors known for close links with Mr Anutin. Eyes are also on former 4th Army chief Gen Kriangkrai Srirak, chief adviser to Mr Anutin, who is now interior minister. Pundits think the general has a high chance of becoming Senate speaker.

The fact that Mr Anutin is at the helm of the interior ministry, with control mechanisms for local administration, enabled BJT to have the upper hand in the race. Pheu Thai has to blame itself for handing the interior portfolio to the BJT when the coalition was formed last August. However, the main coalition party had little choice then, as it had to handle economic affairs.

Yet, Pheu Thai may find it hard to comprehend why it has plunged this deep. Apart from Mr Somchai, another loser is Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisarn, former deputy PM in the Yingluck administration. On the one hand, it could be said the party underestimated the race, with overconfidence in its power. The poll results are indeed a wake-up call for the Shinawatras. There are reports that some Pheu Thai members even think the party deserves the loss over its perceived failure to take care of those in their camp as they did before.

The party has to accept the fact -- no matter how hard it is to swallow -- it's not the same any more. Its popularity is declining; from being the top poll winner for more than two decades, it came second in the last election, and there are signs that the party has suffered disunity. Despite his hard efforts, even Thaksin cannot restore the party to its former glory. This attests to another bitter fact: the Pheu Thai de facto leader has lost his spell.

With the Senate under BJT control, Pheu Thai has to brace for tough times ahead. The new development means its bargaining power is significantly contracted when dealing with the former, while it has to be extremely careful with the new Senate regarding its scrutiny power against the government and independent agencies. There are no more safe zones like in the old days.

Needless to say, the BJT will become even stronger from here on. With the new Senate, the party should be able to keep the state budget for the ministries under its control instead of losing it to Pheu Thai's digital wallet scheme.

Moreover, BJT can feel more secure about any prospective dissolution as the new Senate may opt to cite "no legal grounds".

Under such circumstances, the BJT could be a new home for some Pheu Thai members who think the party may not go far in the next election and fail to address the nation's economic woes. If that happens, it will be a real loss for Pheu Thai.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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