House speaker row hurts coalition unity
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House speaker row hurts coalition unity

Some see signs of Pheu Thai plot

Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat, right, and Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew, left, meet leaders of their coalition allies at the Pheu Thai headquarters on June 7. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)
Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat, right, and Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew, left, meet leaders of their coalition allies at the Pheu Thai headquarters on June 7. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)

Academics and politicians believe the battle for the House speaker position between the Pheu Thai Party and the Move Forward Party (MFP) will undermine unity among the eight parties seeking to form a coalition government.

His Majesty the King will preside over the state opening of parliament on Monday and the House of Representatives will convene on Tuesday to select the House speaker and two deputies.

A joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate is expected to convene on July 13 to select a new prime minister, according to sources.

Speaker's key roles

In an interview with the Bangkok Post, Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, explained how important the next House speaker will be in the selection of a new prime minister.

He said that while the House speaker has no power to select a prime minister, the speaker still can use parliamentary regulations to control House sessions and speed up or delay the vote on a prime minister.

He added the speaker also has the power to decide which bills should be put on parliament's agenda.

"The MFP once faced a hurdle when it proposed a bill to amend Section 112 [the lese majeste law] but the parliament president at the time [Chuan Leekpai] refused to put it on the agenda," Mr Yutthaporn said.

"In light of this, both the MFP and Pheu Thai are refusing to budge," he said.

None of the outgoing coalition parties has nominated candidates for House speaker so far.

"This is strange. Maybe a plot is being hatched [by the outgoing parties] to cause a rift among the eight prospective parties by nominating and supporting a Pheu Thai candidate for House speaker to rival a candidate from the MFP," Mr Yutthaporn said.

Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon has denied rumours the PPRP could nominate former PPRP member and ex-deputy House speaker Suchart Tancharoen -- now a list-MP for Pheu Thai -- for the House speaker role.

Gen Prawit said the PPRP has not decided who it would support for House speaker. If Mr Suchart runs, he stands to gain votes from Pheu Thai as well as from MPs of the outgoing government.

Mr Yutthaporn added that if the House speaker is not a candidate from the MFP, its leader Pita Limjaroenrat will stand little chance of becoming the next prime minister.

He also said the configuration of the eight-party coalition is not balanced as it comprises only two major parties -- the MFP and Pheu Thai -- along with a number of small and micro parties. No medium-sized parties have joined it.

If either of the two major parties pulls out as a result of conflict, the coalition will fall apart, Mr Yutthaporn said.

Jade Donavanik, a legal scholar and former adviser to a constitution drafting committee, said that a House speaker plays an important role and as such must remain neutral.

"But some MFP supporters say the party's failure to secure the speaker's chair will complicate efforts to push for legislation or charter amendments," he said.

"This means they want the speaker position to be able to exploit technicalities in parliament for their own benefit," Mr Jade said.

"A House speaker who fails to maintain neutrality can delay the vote on a prime ministerial candidate by accepting and forwarding a petition regarding the qualifications of the candidate to the Constitutional Court, for instance.

"A House speaker also has the authority to allow MPs to speak in parliament in a way that benefits certain parties. A speaker can put the brakes on the nomination of a PM candidate as well as on a move to propose legislation," he said.

Mr Jade said he believed the tussle over the House speakership will undermine the unity among the eight parties seeking to form a government.

"Don't forget that voting for the new House speaker will be carried out via secret ballots and no one knows who is voting for whom," he said.

Speakership stalemate

Jirat Thongsuwan, an MFP MP for Chachoengsao, insisted the MFP, which won the most House seats in the May 14 election, is entitled to the House speakership.

He said none of the eight parties should nominate candidates to rival the MFP as this would cause a rift within the coalition.

"It is not such a big deal and it's not worth fighting over," he said.

"It's not a matter of power-sharing. It is about each party fulfilling its election pledges," Mr Jirat said.

"If the issue cannot be settled, this will adversely affect the formation of a government and people will lose confidence", he said.

Mr Jirat also said Pheu Thai's push for the House speakership may be a gambit to bargain for more cabinet seats.

Asked how a House speaker will sway the vote for a new prime minister, Mr Jirat said a House speaker plays a key role in deciding on the agenda, postponing meetings, and allowing or not permitting MPs to debate.

Before the vote, the speaker should allow MPs to share their views on candidates nominated for prime minister and if the speaker does not allow them to speak, this would affect the decision of other MPs, he said.

Under the constitution, if a PM candidate cannot gather the support of more than half of the 750 members of both the lower and upper chambers of the House, the voting will be repeated until the candidate gets the required support.

Voting for a new prime minister will be carried out openly, compared to the secret ballots for a House speaker.

"We can vote repeatedly until we get a new prime minister. But if this situation occurs, it will expose the lack of unity [among the eight parties]. We should make sure a new prime minister is chosen in the first round of voting,'' he said, but added that "It is not a problem if a political accident occurs and we end up in the opposition bloc. Parliament still needs a strong opposition."

Mr Jirat also said he disagreed with the secret vote on the new House speaker, saying this would lead to renegade MPs being paid to vote for candidates from rival parties.

However, Deputy Pheu Thai leader Sutin Klungsang said most of the party's MPs agree the House speaker post should belong to Pheu Thai.

"They believe it reflects the party's dignity and clout," Mr Sutin said, adding the House speaker will help ensure smooth passage for legislation pushed by Pheu Thai.

Mr Sutin also admitted that unity among the eight parties will be affected if Pheu Thai and the MFP cannot settle who should get the speaker position.

He also said the dispute over the House speakership could bode ill for the selection of a new prime minister.

"MPs may not vote for a prime ministerial candidate [from the MFP]. One of the two parties may even pull out of the coalition," Mr Sutin said.

MFP pulling out?

A source at the MFP said both parties were originally scheduled to hash out the issue on June 28, but the MFP postponed the meeting indefinitely after Pheu Thai insisted on its demands.

They have agreed to meet today to discuss the matter but again postponed.

"It is obvious that Pheu Thai wants to establish a new coalition and sideline the MFP," he said.

"If a Pheu Thai candidate is voted in as House speaker, this is tantamount to a betrayal. In that case, we would have to ask if Pheu Thai still wants the MFP to join the government."

"If Pheu Thai wants to change sides and form a new coalition, the MFP would have to pull out and join the opposition. A Pheu Thai alliance with the PPRP, Bhumjaithai and the Democrats is doomed to fail,'' the source said.

"If things turn out this way, the rumour about a secret deal was true,'' the source said.

Gen Prawit denies rumours that he discussed a secret political deal with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in England recently. He claimed he went there for medical treatment.

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