Election of Chuan Leekpai as House Speaker shows rifts in both power blocs

Chuan Leekpai, a senior member from the Democrat Party and former Prime Minister of Thailand, was elected by the House of Representatives as its Speaker on Saturday (May 25). 

As the first Prime Minister in Thailand to come to power without either aristocratic or military backing in the 1990s, the 80-year-old Chuan was in office for two terms, 1992-1995 and 1997-2001.

Chuan Leekpai (left) House Speaker from the Democrat Party and Suchart Tanchareon (right) deputy House Speaker from PPRP (source: Flickr/Thaigov, PPRP)

But this victory as Speaker means he was backed by the junta-led the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP.) His defeated opponent was former Deputy Prime Minister Gen Pol Sompong Amornvivat of the Pheu Thai Party.

“Chuan got 258 votes and Sompong got 235. Chuan will be the new Speaker of the House of Representatives,” announced Chai Chidchob, the 91-year-old Acting Speaker, who was Speaker of the House before the coup in 2014 and is now a Bhumjaithai Party MP. 

Chuan’s nomination by the PPRP is believed to be part of a deal between the PPRP and the Democrat Party in exchange for the Democrats joining a PPRP-led coalition. 

Under Thailand’s 2017 constitution, the House Speaker serves as the President of parliament with the Senate Speaker as Deputy President of parliament. As House Speaker, Chuan will convene the lower House and the Senate to jointly elect a new prime minister.

The parliament session was closed at 7.08 pm and MPs returned on Sunday (26 May) to vote on the two Deputy Speakers.

Suchart was elected as deputy House Speaker defeating Yaowalux Wongpraparat, a female candidate from the Future Forward Party by 248 votes to 246.

Signs of rift inside PPRP 

Suchart Tanchareon defected from the Bhumjaithai party and joined the PPRP on 23 November 2018. (Source: Thai Post/PPRP)

Suchart Tanchareon (L) as a guest on the TV show of his son 'Mot Dam' Kachapa Tanchareon (R) in March 2019 (source: GMM 25)

Previously on Saturday morning when the House convened, a political faction inside the PPRP signalled its disagreement with Chuan’s nomination.

The Prachachat website reported on Saturday (25 May) that a faction within the PPRP led by Somkid Jatusripitak, Deputy Prime Minister and Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, did not want Chuan to be House Speaker, for fear that the Democrat Party would gain more bargaining power.

Moreover, the Pho Mot Dam (Father of Black Ant) faction led by Suchart Tancharoen and the Sam Mit (Three Allies) faction did not support Chuan’s nomination, claiming that Suchart as House Speaker would guarantee certain political outcomes, including the choice of Prime Minister.

A few days ago, Suchart, PPRP MP for Chachoengsao, said the party had picked him to run for House Speaker. Suchart and the Pho Mot Dam faction defected from the Bhumjaithai party in November 2018. 

The name ‘Pho Mot Dam’ in Thai can be confusing because it can mean both a ‘black wizard’ as well as the literal meaning of ‘father of a black ant’. In this case, ‘Pho Mot Dam’ has nothing to do with being a wizard (pho mot), but the father of ‘Mot Dam’, the nickname of Kachapa Tancharoen, Suchart’s son and a Thai actor who is a friend of Thaksin’s son ‘Oak’ Panthongtae Shinawatra.

The Thai media started to name Suchart’s faction ‘Pho Mot Dam’ in November 2018 when Suchart and his faction members (mostly former members of the Ban Rim Nam faction) joined the PPRP.

However, the ‘VIPs’ in the Senate demanded that Chuan become House Speaker because they need his seniority and experience to deal with the NCPO-picked senators who mostly are senior civil servants, high-ranking military officers and judges, Prachachat reported.

In order to buy time for further negotiation within the party, Veerakorn Khamprakorb, PPRP MP and a former Thai Rak Thai executive, asked the Acting House Speaker to delay the vote on the House Speaker and Deputies.

However, the Pheu Thai party and its allies disagreed with the PPRP proposal, saying that the people had waited for more than 5 years to have representatives to solve the problem for them.

Rangsiman Rome, anti-coup activist turned Future Forward Party MP, demanded that the House not allow the unreadiness of some political parties to dominate Parliament and that Parliament must have a House Speaker that day.

In the afternoon, Chai decided to open a voice vote for the proposal. Interestingly, and probably as a courtesy to the PPRP or to seize an opportunity to extend the negotiations for more cabinet positions, Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul and Chuan Leekpai himself voted to allow the delay.

However, the Pheu Thai side won 248 to 246 with two abstentions: those of Chai and Thepthai Senapong of the Democrat Party. 5 PPRP MPs led by Anucha Nakasai of the Sam Mit faction, voted no but then asked the Acting House Speaker to change their votes before the count, but the rules did not allow it.

The result meant that the House had to vote on the House Speaker without further delay. The PPRP then nominated the Democrat’s Chuan instead of Pho Mot Dam’s Suchart to consolidate support from its allies. On the other side, a Pheu Thai ally nominated Gen Pol Sompong from Pheu Thai.

Rifts inside the already unfairly treated opposition

Chuan defeated Sompong by 258 to 235 votes, while Chai abstained as Acting Speaker. Disappointed that the anti-junta bloc did not secure 242 MPs, Chonlanan Srikaew, a Pheu Thai MP for Nan, admitted there were 7-8 MPs who had defected from the Pheu Thai alliance.

Right after the general election on March 24, 7 parties including Pheu Thai, Pheu Chart, the FFP, the Thai Liberal Party, the Prachachart Party, the Phalang Puangchon Thai Party, and the New Economics Party formed an anti-junta bloc. At the Lancaster Hotel in Bangkok, all the leaders except one signed a manifesto vowing to fight against the junta. The document was later called the Lancaster Declaration.

The one who did not sign the Lancaster Declaration was Mingkwan Sangsuwan, the leader of the New Economics Party at that time. Even though he did not sign, he guaranteed his party’s allegiance to the anti-junta bloc. He resigned as party leader on 23 May, two days before Chuan became House Speaker. Right before the opening of parliament, he confirmed his party’s allegiance to the anti-junta bloc and also took pictures with MPs of the Pheu Thai alliance.

Immediately after the general election, it looked like the anti-junta bloc would have a majority in the House with 255 MPs, but the weapon of math destruction was activated when the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) confirmed the election of 149 party-list MPs on 8 May. Using a questionable calculation method, the number of party-list MPs in the anti-junta bloc was sliced down leaving a total of 245. 

The situation worsened when Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was suspended as MP by the partisan Constitutional Court. On Saturday (25 May), he broke into the House before the motion on the meeting delay. His opponents shouted at him he had no right to be there, only for Thanathorn to successfully announce that he accepted the Court’s order. The MPs on his side showed the three fingers signal of resistance to highlight the injustice as he walked out of the room doing the same. The Acting Speaker said “this House is not a theatre” as he walked out. 

Earlier, Surapol Kietchaiyakorn of the Pheu Thai party, who won in Constituency 8 of Chiang Mai, had been banned from politics for 1 year by the Election Commission for donating 2,000 baht in cash and a clock to Phra Khruba Sam of Phra That Doi Chao Temple and that seat remains vacant pending a second election. One Future Forward Party MP also took a sick leave on Saturday. So, the anti-junta bloc should have had 242 votes on the day Chuan became Speaker. As of now, no one knows who the 8 defectors are.