Updated at 5:43 p.m. ET on 2019-06-05
Thailand’s parliament voted junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha back into power as prime minister late Wednesday, officially transforming the former army general who seized power in a 2014 coup into a civilian leader, amid criticism of the electoral process.
The vote during a joint session of the two parliamentary houses came after hours of heated debate in which lawmakers delivered speeches for or against a pair of candidates for PM: Prayuth, who was backed an alliance led by the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party, and lone rival Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who represented a coalition of pro-democracy parties.
“Prayuth Chan-o-cha received more than half of the existing votes and was elected as prime minister,” House Speaker Chuan Leekpai announced in parliament late in the evening.
After all the votes were counted, Prayuth received 500, while Thanathorn took 244 votes, Chuan said.
Each candidate needed at least 376 votes from the combined 750 seats in both houses to clinch the post of prime minister, paving the way for the winner to form a new government.
Both nominees were not present during the day’s parliamentary deliberations.
Prayuth did not issue any statements immediately after he was selected as PM.
Thanathorn, 40, talked to reporters outside the parliament’s assembly hall.
“We have been robbed of victory,” Thanathorn said after hearing the vote result.
Last month, Thanathorn, leader of the Future Forward Party, was suspended from the parliamentary seat he won in the March 24 general election, pending a court’s decision on a complaint filed by junta authorities that he had violated election law by holding shares in a media company.
Thanathorn has denied the various legal challenges filed by the junta against him, describing them as politically motivated.
Prayuth’s election was expected after his supporters skirted a potential deadlock, when the Democrat Party on Tuesday agreed to join Palang Pracharat, bolstering the goal of a pro-junta alliance of at least 18 parties to elect the former general.
The Democrat Party’s pledge to support the pro-junta alliance forced its ex-leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, to resign his seat in parliament, saying he had promised during the election campaign to fight Prayuth’s goal of continuing as prime minister.
“I could not vote for General Prayuth,” Abhisit told reporters. “That would mean I would break my promise with the people.”
“I believe that only the politics based on ideals and principles can create happiness and benefits for the people and the nation in the long run," he said. "Therefore, effective immediately, I resign as MP.”
The heated parliamentary debate was unusual in Thailand, which has experienced a rubber-stamp legislative assembly since Prayuth, a former army general, seized power after leading the coup that toppled the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra in May 2014.
Yingluck, 51, was elected prime minister in 2011, Thailand’s last election before the March 2019 polls. She is living in exile with her brother, Thaksin, who served as prime minister from 2001 until he was overthrown in a similar coup in September 2006.
Prayuth, 65, did not run for a seat in the lower house. He headed the junta government, officially known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which enacted a new constitution that does not require the incoming prime minister to be an elected member of parliament.
The junta also tweaked the system of electing the new prime minister, virtually assuring that Prayuth would get the official parliamentary votes. Under the new legislative rules, the premier would be chosen jointly by the 500-member House and its other half, the Senate, whose 250 members were appointed by the junta.
Under Prayuth’s government, Thais have lived with strict controls on political gatherings and free speech that tamed the kingdom’s polarized politics.
Sen. Seri Suwanapanont, in his parliamentary speech prior to Wednesday’s vote, defended the coup that catapulted Prayuth to his country’s political helm, saying Thailand was then in chaos with violent protests that threatened the people’s livelihood.
“The problems existed in the country not because of the coup, but because of us, politicians,” he said.
“I’m accused of favoring authoritarianism,” he said. “I appreciate democratic dictatorship but I don’t appreciate sham democracy.”
Another senator said 131 people were killed, 3,388 were injured and country sustained economic losses under Thaksin’s rule.
As the verbal clash raged in parliament on Wednesday, Prayuth’s critics questioned his qualifications to lead Thailand.
“The general has no faith in democracy,” The Nation, a Thai daily newspaper, said in an editorial, citing that Prayuth had used the country's military to demolish a civilian government before handpicking 250 senators who were expected to vote him back as chief executive. “Nobody on this planet can deem that action democratic.”
“Parliamentarians should consider the fact that Prayuth lacks a mandate from the people since he did not run for election,” the newspaper said. “If he is elected today, Prayuth’s administration will be one of the most unstable in recent history.”
Despite the advantages stacked in favor of the military-back Palang Pracharat, the opposition alliance won most of the seats in the lower house, making it likely difficult for the government to pass legislation.
Another daily, The Bangkok Post, said the nation’s Election Commission (EC) should have tried to prove that it was politically independent and impartial in the lead-up and during the aftermath of the March 24 general election.
But it said the commission had taken steps, including allegations of gerrymandering when it redrew constituency boundaries, which prompted accusations that the agency was playing favoritism.
“The EC’s handling of the polls then proved to be flawed and plagued with irregularities detected at polling stations and during vote counting,” the Post said in its editorial over the weekend.
The newspaper also slammed the commission’s use of a new calculation formula for the distribution of party-list members of parliament “despite criticism that the method distorts the principles of the election law.”
“Thailand will be a country with a parliament, but it won’t be a democratic parliament,” Sirote Klampaiboon, an independent political analyst, told the Washington Post on Wednesday. The House of Representatives and Senate, he added, established as checks on power and as legislative bodies, will be “meaningless.”