Sathit's twin challenge
Tackling the Omicron outbreak, checking election laws a big ask
Democrat veteran Sathit Pitutecha is now wearing two hats, one as deputy public health minister and the other as chair of the parliamentary panel scrutinising two organic laws related to the new election system.
The dual role is raising concerns whether he can manage both tasks when the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 shows no sign of slowing and the deadline of the vetting process is about three months away.
All eyes are focused on when parliament finishes revising the two laws. According to political observers, parties will likely turn up the pressure on the government to dissolve the House and call snap elections.
In an interview with Bangkok Post, the Democrat MP expressed confidence he can find the time and that the examination can be wrapped up in May as planned.
The 49-member committee, set up after the bills designed to reflect the constitutional changes were passed before parliament went into recess, will meet on Wednesdays and Thursdays to vet amendments.
According to Mr Sathit, the Wednesday meetings are designated to examine the law on the elections of MPs while Thursdays are scheduled for vetting the political party law.
In his view, the election system is expected to dominate the process because the rules must be fair and acceptable to all sides otherwise they can trigger conflicts.
Among the key contentious points are whether a party's candidates will be allocated the same polling number in all constituencies; how party-list seats will be distributed and if the primary vote is necessary and if it can be shortened.
"The election rules are close to the people's heart and the most important thing is to make them fair and acceptable. We'll use the mechanism available: that is, if no agreement can be reached, the panel members who disagree will propose 'amendments', which will allow us to explain them to the people," he said.
No matter how busy the panel is, it will make time to update people about the process, he said.
Mr Sathit said it is too early to discuss what the new rules will look like. He was asked about the complex calculation method of party list seats.
The law requires recalculation and redistribution of party list seats if a by-election is held within one year. When a by-election was called within one year of the 2019 general election, some parties gained more party-list seats due to changes to vote tallies.
He said panel members are supposed to adhere to the contents in the draft amendments that passed the first reading of the joint sitting of MPs and senators last month.
"I think we should leave at home any ideas we might have. We should debate how strong and weak the election rules are. Should a party be designated the same candidacy number for both party-list and constituency candidates? We should look at their strong and weak points, not what we feel about it.
"The most discussed issue during the first reading was how to strengthen parties, so we must be able to explain how it will consolidate parties and the new rules must be in compliance of the constitution," he said.
Mr Sathit also defended his appointment as the panel chairman following criticism that the Democrat Party snatched the job away from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
He was elected chairman with support from 22 committee members, defeating deputy PPRP leader Paiboon Nititawan who had 21 votes, amid reports that government whips agreed to have Mr Paiboon take the helm.
While admitting that government whips had some problems getting their members to toe the line, he did not intend to compete for the post. He was nominated by Move Forward Party list MP Kasemsan Meethip.
According to Mr Sathit, he opted not to attend the meeting out of concerns that his presence, as a representative of the cabinet, would pressure the committee members to propose him for the job.
The deputy Democrat leader and MP for Rayong said he did not turn down the job, because he was selected through a legitimate process. He is confident that he is up to the task.
"I heard that some members would nominate me but I didn't say anything because government whips had already reached an agreement. I had no objection if someone proposed me. Eventually an opposition MP proposed me," he said.
While he is also the deputy Democrat Party leader, his job as the head of the committee is not to uphold the party's stance, but to steer the meetings and consider if the proposals are in line with the principles of the charter amendments, he said.
If the draft amendments are tweaked in a way that is beyond what is allowed, they can be rendered void and the efforts will be in vain, he said.
With committee members expected to fight tooth and nail, Mr Sathit said he is aware the debate may heat up from time to time.
Even if the House is dissolved before the bills clear the third reading, the political situation will not reach a dead end. However, it will be up to the prime minister to decide how to solve the situation.
Some observers believe the caretaker government might issue an executive decree based on the election-related bills to hold a snap election. This option is likely to meet criticism that the rules are made up by the government.
He said it is his job to see to it that the scrutinising committee finishes its job quickly but not in a rush. And this will be proof that the coalition government is not trying to stall the process, he said.
"It is also why I think we should speed up the vetting process so that no controversial bill is adopted as an executive decree," said Mr Sathit.