Reform on two fronts

Reform on two fronts

ABOUT POLITICS: Some Progressive Movement supporters are wondering whether a decentralisation push will damage bid to change lese majeste law v Bangkok's Constituency 9 by-election set to be popularity contest for parties and a chance for candidates to settle old scores

Piyabutr: Hands full with reform
Piyabutr: Hands full with reform

The Progressive Movement has started out the year with what appears to be a change of tack that might not strike a chord with its die-hard supporters.

Political analysts reckon there is more to the grand scheme than meets the eye. On Jan 2, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, the Progressive Movement's secretary-general, unveiled a public petition set for launch in April aimed at straightening out a power decentralisation law which it ridiculed as being backward and lacking the people-centric component necessary to inspire trust in it.

Laying out a plan, the law professor said the campaign will get underway on April 1 and last until June 30.

The Progressive Movement is pinning its hopes on raking in more than 100,000 signatures in support of its own version of decentralisation. If the target is achieved, it would lead to a motion being tabled in parliament to allow Mr Piyabutr and movement founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to explain the issue before lawmakers in the chamber, possibly in November.

Mr Piyabutr attacked the current decentralisation law as being rooted in misguided concepts initiated by the coup-maker, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

Under the law, according to Mr Piyabutr, the power to manage local affairs rests in the hands of provincial governors who are appointed by the Interior Ministry. Through the governors, the ministry directs policies to be implemented in localities with no understanding of local needs and the depth of problems faced by people on the ground.

The status quo also makes leaders elected in Local Administrative Organisation (LAO) polls meaningless, Mr Piyabutr said.

What the movement has in mind is to implement a bona fide decentralised power structure where LAOs are in control of their own budgetary management and development affairs. The bureaucracy which has long dominated the local administrative scene will be thrown out, he said.

The Progressive Movement has certainly caused quite a stir as it seeks to stop provincial governors, district chiefs and other officials in the provinces representing state agencies.

But before any ground-breaking changes can materialise, a relevant section of the constitution must be modified. In this case, Section 14 of the charter governing the decentralisation of power needs fine-tuning and replacing with "progressive" content borrowed from Section 9 on power distribution in the now-abrogated 1997 charter, according to Mr Piyabutr.

He added Section 9 will be trumpeted as its key message in pushing for a review of Section 14. However, Mr Piyabutr indicated the changes would not happen soon but over the course of 10-15 years.

If the movement has its way, he said: "The pent-up capacities of LAOs will be released."

Wary of the tremendous objections he was bound to run into for working to push through the changes, Mr Piyabutr insisted any opponents should think again. He said it had nothing to do with the Senate, independent agencies or the higher institution.

Observers, however, noted the latest move by the Progressive Movement could mark a sequel to the Tambon Administrative Organisation (TAO) elections nationwide in which they fielded 196 candidates, mostly in the Northeast, and came away with 38 seats.

The result remains debatable to this day as to whether winning 38 seats spoke of the movement's success, particularly when 12,309 candidates sought to become TAO chiefs across the country.

The observers said it would be understandable that the Progressive Movement, which won most of its TAO seats in the Northeast, would feel galvanised by the poll results as it meant it had secured a tiny foothold in the smaller LAOs.

The LAOs are where national politicians emerge. Many of them have grown attached to constituencies and won the hearts and minds of local residents through development projects and they have gone on to become MPs.

The observer said the Progressive Movement would want to "build from the ground up" and grow their own strongholds in local areas.

As the movement is likely to have a busy calendar this year, some supporters have questioned whether it will have time to juggle two reform issues -- the decentralisation of power and the lese majeste law.

Lese majeste law reform has been the movement's mainstay campaign for a long time. The Progressive Movement, as well as the Move Forward Party which some critics deem as its political arm, have gained support through its sustained advocacy for changes to the law.

Some of the movement's zealous supporters might find the decentralisation campaign a politically calculated move and a shift away from the real focus.

The observers said that some might be eager to know if the Progressive Movement will be able to handle their reform pursuit on the two issues equally well.

Runners and riders

Stakes are high in the Jan 30 by-election in Bangkok's Constituency 9 especially for the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) which will pull out all the stops to defend its turf.

Some observers believe the by-election means more to the PPRP than it does to other political parties.

Winning means the ruling party can retain the House seat it won in 2019 and try and claim that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's approval rating in Bangkok remains strong.

Prayut: By-election barometer

The poll comes almost three years after the general election and is being called to replace former PPRP Bangkok MP Sira Jenjaka who was disqualified by the Constitutional Court.

According to the court ruling, the politician was ineligible to contest the 2019 election due to a fraud conviction handed down by the Pathumwan District Court in 1995 along with an eight-month jail term.

Gen Prayut is the face of the ruling PPRP which nominated him as its single prime minister candidate in that election. He is believed to be the major reason for the ruling party capturing the second largest number of House seats after the Pheu Thai Party.

Bangkok's Constituency 9, which covers Laksi district and parts of Chatuchak district, was previously held by Pheu Thai veteran, Surachart Thienthong, before the PRPR candidate unseated him.

The PPRP has fielded Saralrasmi Jenjaka, Sira's wife, in the by-election who is running on a "continuity of work" campaign with Sira reportedly assuring voters that his spouse would continue to support and be loyal to Gen Prayut and work to protect the prime minister on his behalf.

With vast resources at its disposal and just one constituency to concentrate on, the PPRP is still predicted to win the by-election and retain the seat.

However, several observers argue that the political landscape is changing and other candidates cannot be ruled out. Some see it as a rematch between the PPPR and Pheu Thai.

The public has grown weary of the coalition government, the PPRP in particular, so Mr Surachart, the Pheu Thai candidate who lost to Sira by less than 3,000 votes, has a strong chance this time round, according to the observers.

Mr Surachart, who has been working in the constituency for almost two decades, has consolidated his political base and he can also rely on Pheu Thai's political clout too.

According to observers, the upcoming poll is also a high-stakes gamble for the Kla Party which has fielded party secretary-general Atavit Suwannapakdee to contest the seat.

Mr Atavit, a former Democrat politician, was an MP for Laksi and Chatuchak districts for about 18 years and had defeated both Mr Suchart and Sira before.

In 2011, he won in Chatuchak district before losing in the last general election.

It is said the Kla Party is very confident Mr Atavit will have support despite him having only a short time to canvass. The party's confidence is also bolstered by the Democrat Party opting out of the race as a courtesy to its coalition partner the PPRP.

Unless his supporters, who are believed to be loyal to the Democrats, decide to switch to support Ms Saralrasmi of the PPRP, Mr Atavit is more a favourite than an underdog.

An Atavit win in Bangkok is expected to pave the way for party success in the next general election and possibly the gubernatorial contest likely to take place later this year.

The Kla is also contesting by-elections in Chumphon and Songkhla although it has a smaller chance of winning there. It had its first taste of election defeat early this year when it fielded Sarawut Suwannarat to contest the by-election in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

The Move Forward Party (MFP) is also joining the race with actor Karoonpon "Petch" Tieansuwan representing the party.

A staunch critic of the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic with no political experience to his name, Mr Karoonpon argues that in addressing people's problems, vision and teamwork matter the most.

According to observers, it is believed the MFP does not expect to win this election but is only taking the opportunity to assess the party's popularity. So they don't expect Mr Karoonpon to emerge victorious.

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