After five years of military rule in Thailand, the king and queen on Friday opened the first session of parliament, calling on lawmakers to remember that their vital duty was to serve the nation’s people.
Nearly 500 members of the House of Representatives and the 250-membered Senate convened at the Foreign Ministry compound for the ceremony and to hear the king’s welcome.
“May all members realize the importance of your duties and perform them duly because your efforts have impact on the national security and the happiness of the people,” King Maha Vajiralongkorn said in a nationally televised address.
The parliament is divided into two chambers, the 500-member lower house and the 250-member senate, whose members were all picked by the junta government led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
Following the king’s welcome, the senate named its leader, Pornpetch Wichitcholchai and two deputies, Gen. Singsuk Singprai and Supachai Somcharoen.
The house is to meet Saturday to begin the process of selecting its speaker and deputy leaders. Unlike the senate, where all the members are aligned with the junta government, the lower house is split among more than two dozen parties, making it difficult for one faction to have control and the power to select the leaders.
Once the house leadership is in place and approved by the king, the two chambers will begin the process of selecting a new prime minister. Because the senate has an equal role in the process, Prayuth appears to have an edge in the race to 376 votes – one more than half of the two houses – need to form a government.
Among those in attendance on Friday was Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, head of the Future Forward Party (FFP), despite being suspended from performing his parliamentary duties by the Constitutional Court on the eve of the opening.
A former tycoon of an auto-parts chain, Thanathorn, 40, who is seen as a maverick politician noted for challenging the power of the junta leadership, will not be able to participate in the selection of house leaders, an official said.
“The constitutional court did not revoke Thanathorn’s status but suspended him from performing the duty. Therefore he will not be able to vote in the parliament,” Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said Friday.
Thanathorn, who wore the white uniform signifying his membership in parliament, is under investigation for holding media company stocks during the election campaign. He vowed to challenge the court’s decision.
Palang Pracharat Party (PPP), which holds 115 seats and nominated Prayuth as prime minister, announced that it had a coalition giving it enough votes to control the lower house as well as the senate, but did not elaborate, according to local media.
Previously announced alliances gave PPP 128 seats, which when added to 250, puts it over the 376-vote threshold to seat the new prime minister. On Friday, the 10-seat Chartthaipattana Party confirmed it is aligning with PPP, adding to its count.
Prayuth has served as prime minister since leading a May 2014 military coup overthrowing the democratic government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
The PPP is being challenged by a pro-democracy coalition led by the Pheu Thai Party which is backed by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, who was ousted from the prime minister’s office by a similar coup in 2006.
Following the March election, Pheu Thai Party, which holds 136 seats, announced a seven-party, 245-seat bloc, including 80 seats from Thanathorn’s FFP.
Recently, the leader of alliance member New Economy Party, resigned his post but remained a member, raising suspicion about whether the six-member party would change its allegiance to PPP.
Two other parties, the Democrat and Bhumjaithai, said they will decide together whether to join PPP or align with the pro-democracy alliance.
Professor Anusorn Unno, dean of sociology and anthropology Thammasat University in Bangkok, said when as many as 27 parties have seats, it is difficult for the democratic alliance to form the new government.
“The junta’s men became senators. It is shameful,” Anusorn told BenarNews. “It is a distortion of democracy.”