Old guard likely to dominate new Senate
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Old guard likely to dominate new Senate

New members have links to BJP, MFP and Pheu Thai, pundits say

The final round of the Senate election takes place at Impact estate in Nonthaburi on Wednesday. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)
The final round of the Senate election takes place at Impact estate in Nonthaburi on Wednesday. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)

The new Senate will not bring a breath of fresh air to Thai politics as many may expect, as most members of the new chamber are believed to have close ties with the old guard, political pundits say.

The new Senate comprises 200 members from 20 professions and succeeds the 250 junta-appointed senators whose term expired on May 10. They were not directly elected by the people.

Unlike their predecessors, new senators will not be empowered to join MPs in electing a PM. They will take part in the passage of legislation and amendments to laws and the constitution.

They will also be responsible for endorsing the appointment of members of independent organisations and Constitutional Court judges, and the Attorney-General, as well as keeping the executive branch in check.

Observers noted the push by the ruling Pheu Thai Party to amend the constitution as well as to include lese majeste in the list of offences that would be pardoned under the new political amnesty bill may also face hurdles from the new Senate.

Under the constitution, any proposal to amend the charter requires the support of one-third of the new 200 senators, or at least 67 senators. Without their support, charter amendments are not allowed.

Under the constitution, if the Senate disagrees with a bill, it can return the bill to the House of Representatives for reconsideration, but the Upper chamber has no power to reject it.

Most members of the new Senate are believed to have political affiliations with the Bhumjaithai (BJT) Party, observers said.

Bhumjaithai leader and Interior Minister Anutin Charnvirakul previously said Section 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lese majeste clause, should be left untouched.

Bhumjaithai earlier voiced support for setting up a charter-drafting assembly to write a new constitution but insisted Chapters 1 and 2 must be left alone.

Chapter 1 contains sections defining Thailand as a single, indivisible kingdom with a democratic regime and the King as the head of state. Chapter 2 contains sections pertaining to the royal prerogatives.

Affiliations with old guard

Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok's Institute, told the Bangkok Post that more than half of the newly elected senators are affiliated with Bhumjaithai.

"In other words, the old power group still maintain influence over the new Senate," he said.

He said he believed the new Senate would be no different from the junta-appointed chamber.

"Those who maintain influence over the majority of the new Senate have close ties with the previous Prayut Chan-o-cha government.

"They have been part of the old power group for a long time," he said, referring to Bhumjaithai.

Mr Stithorn also noted that many candidates are linked to Pheu Thai, including former prime minister Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is widely believed to Pheu Thai's de facto leader. But Mr Somchai did not get elected.

"The return of Thaksin did not offer any help. He may have lost his charm," Ms Stithorn said.

Mr Stithorn also said the new Senate will endorse candidates for independent organisations and the majority of senators affiliated with Bhumjaithai will play a big role in endorsing them.

Key role in charter change

As for any charter amendment, the support of at least one-third, or 67 senators is required.

"It will depend on which part of the constitution will be amended. There should be no problem if a charter change is acceptable [to Bhumjaithai].

"But if the Move Forward Party [MFP] seeks to amend [Chapters 1 and 2], those senators are expected to stop them," Mr Stithorn said.

He also said the current Senate voting system is likely to be retained as long as Bhumjaithai still benefits from it.

It will not be easy for those who want to scrap the Senate election system to introduce a new one to allow people to vote for senators directly because they also have to amend the constitution's provisions governing the Senate election, he said.

"That will not be easy because most of the senators [affiliated with Bhumjaithai] will stand in their way," Mr Stithorn said.

BJT is at the centre of attention after the unofficial result of the Senate election showed that Buri Ram, the party's political stronghold, has the largest share of seats, with 14 candidates winning in the final voting on June 26.

Other candidates believed to be affiliated with Bhumjaithai also gained victory in other provinces, according to observers.

Stithorn: More than half linked to Bhumjaithai

Thanaporn Sriyakul, director of the Political and Public Policy Analysis Institute, told the Bangkok Post that up to 130 senators-elect could have affiliations with the Bhumjaithai Party and the rest with the Move Forward Party (MFP) and the Pheu Thai Party.

"This will now boost Bhumjaithai's bargaining power in politics, and the party is expected to emerge as a major political rival [to Pheu Thai and the MFP] in the future," he said.

"Those who want to get seats at independent organisations will now know where the wind will blow. They are expected to head to Buri Rum to seek favours," Mr Thanaporn said.

He echoed the view that any attempts to amend Chapters 1 and 2 of the constitution as well as pardon lese majeste offenders under the proposed amnesty bill are unlikely to succeed, considering the majority of the new senators' affiliations with Bhumjaithai.

"Bhumajaithai is now perceived to be an emerging conservative party and it is expected to receive support from other leaders from the conservative establishment," Mr Thanaporn said.

He said he did not think the Senate result would be nullified by complaints of fraud. Those complaints must be backed up with solid evidence and they will be decided by the Supreme Court. Mr Thanaporn said he also believed the Senate voting system will remain in use. "Those who benefit from it will keep it in place," he said.

Bhumajaithai leader Anutin has denied any role in the Senate election amid claims that many of the 200 senators-elect appeared to have affiliations with his party.

Mr Anutin said parties were not allowed to get involved in the Senate race, and as the party leader, he clearly instructed party members not to interfere in the contest.

Thanaporn: Rest linked to MFP, Pheu Thai

Lack of independence

Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a former election commissioner and a candidate who failed in the Senate race, told the Bangkok Post that many of the new senators who have affiliations with parties cannot maintain independence. "When it comes to amending the constitution, these senators will be influenced by politicians to whom they are linked," he said.

Mr Somchai added that a proposal to amend the charter to set up a charter-drafting assembly to draw up a new constitution may be frowned upon by some parties which are currently in power if the new charter disadvantages those parties in future elections.

He also believed that members of independent organisations will come from parties that wield influence over the new senators.

"Those parties don't want independent organisations to pose a threat to them," he said.

Independent organisations include the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Ombudsman, the State Audit Commission and the Election Commission. Mr Somchai said it is unlikely that parties that benefit from the Senate election system will seek to replace it with a new one.

Somchai: Hard to maintain independence

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