Thai Junta-Backed Council Recommends Direct Election of PM

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre & Aukkarapon Niyomyat 18 December 2014

BANGKOK — A council appointed by Thailand’s ruling military junta voted Wednesday to recommend stripping parliament of the power to appoint a prime minister and cabinet, triggering accusations that the move is aimed at curtailing democracy.

The National Reform Council resolved after three days of debate to propose making top office holders subject to direct election by the public.

The recommendation will be considered by Thailand’s Constitution Drafting Committee, a body set up by the military to draft a new charter after the previous document was torn up following a May 22 coup.

Disunity over electoral laws and the new charter could raise tension at a time when the junta, led by Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, is trying to keep critics at bay and buttress a stagnant economy.

Thailand’s main political parties argue the latest proposal would weaken parliamentary checks and balances and encourage patronage politics.

Supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was toppled by the coup, also contend the reforms appear to be aimed at preventing the return of a government aligned with her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, an exiled billionaire and former prime minister who was ousted in an earlier 2006 coup.

“Direct elections for a prime minister are not appropriate for a democracy,” Udomdej Rattansatien, a lawmaker from the Thaksin-aligned Puea Thai Party, told Reuters.

“It would give the prime minister too much power and make it difficult to scrutinize their work. The prime minister should come from parliamentary lawmakers who are voted in by the public.”

The May 22 coup against Yingluck Shinawatra was billed as a bid to restore order after months of political infighting that killed nearly 30 people. Thailand currently has an interim charter that gives the military government sweeping powers, including the ability to arbitrarily detain people.

Under Thailand’s current system the 500-member House of Representatives, the lower house of parliament, elects the prime minister. Of the 500 members in the lower house, 375 are picked from single-seat constituencies and another 125 are appointed through party-list representation.

A Puea Thai Party initiative in 2013 to make Thailand’s partially appointed upper house fully elected was thrown out by the Constitutional Court.

The failed reform bid sparked six months of street protests against Yingluck which culminated in the May coup.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is also defence minister, said elections would take place in 2016.