What the Thai Senate Race Means And Why It’s All Different

(Bloomberg) -- Thailand has kicked off the process to hold its first Senate race since a coup in 2014, after the military-appointed batch completed its five-year term earlier in May. The Election Commission received more than 48,000 submissions after a five-day application period that ended May 24.

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Up for grabs are 200 seats in the upper house of the Thai parliament, which for the last decade has largely served to safeguard the interests of the pro-military royalist establishment. The Senate — in its new form — won’t have the power to elect a prime minister but will broadly retain its other roles.

The upper house chamber was in the spotlight for its controversial role in Thailand’s 2023 general election, when it ultimately blocked the prime ministerial candidate of the winning reformist party from assuming power. It used an article in the 2017 military-backed constitution to do so, and later helped install Srettha Thavisin from the runner-up Pheu Thai Party as prime minister.

Here’s what you need to know about the upcoming Senate race.

How will it work?

The new upper house will have 200 lawmakers compared with 250 members previously. The senators will be from one of the pre-determined 20 civil and professional categories, ranging from farmers to lawyers, women and ethnic minorities.

Candidates must be Thai nationals and at least 40 years old. They cannot be drug addicts, bankrupt, “mentally challenged,” currently in prison or under political bans, according to Senate election rules. Members of the previous post-coup Senate and political parties were not eligible to apply.

Senate aspirants had to pay 2,500 baht ($68) in fees, a figure that’s at least six times the daily minimum wage. The process was criticized by some who see it as excluding people who don’t have disposable income.

The Election Commission will vet all submissions and publish the list of candidates who qualify for the next round by May 29. The polls are set for June 9-26. Results are expected by July 2. The new Senate will also have a term of five years.

Former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, 76, and prominent pro-democracy activist Anurak Jeantawanich, 55, are among the applicants, according to a database published by the Election Commission on May 25. Anurak has said he is hoping to help push reform agendas from the legislative chambers after spending decades on the ground. Somchai is the brother-in-law of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, seen as Pheu Thai Party’s de facto leader.

How democratic will the election be?

From 2000 until the 2014 coup, senators were either wholly or partially elected by Thai voters. Under the new system, the general public will have no role in picking the new senators.

The 2024 Senate election will use a so-called “self-selection” process for the first time. Qualified applicants will vote among themselves — for each other within their group and across the 20 groups — at different levels from local to provincial and national. The top 10 candidates from each group will make up the new Senate.

Applicants are prohibited from giving media interviews, mentioning the monarchy in their self-introduction, and holding entertainment events to promote themselves, according to rules published by the Election Commission in late April. The agency decided on May 27 to abide by the Central Administrative Court’s order to revoke some of its restrictions, including on applicants’ self-promotion to the general public by means of putting up posters in public places.

How involved can political parties be?

The Senate election law states that executive leaders or those who hold formal titles in political parties are prohibited from any action that may influence the race. Wrongdoers will face up to 10 years in jail and 200,000 baht in fines.

The same ban and penalties apply to those holding political office, lawmakers in the lower house and local administrative officials. Applicants who accept help from political parties or political office holders also face punishment and will have their electoral rights revoked.

Some political and civil groups have tried to skirt the rules. The Progressive Movement, a group linked to the opposition Move Forward Party, said it is aiming to see at least 70 independent senators from its campaign for public representation in the upper house.

Why is this election important?

The upcoming election will determine how tight a grip the conservative establishment will be able to maintain on one of the most important political institutions in Thailand, and how resistant it will be to progressive agendas backed by a growing demographic of voters who crave change.

The Senate will continue to hold crucial roles in Thailand’s legislative process, especially in the amendment of the military-backed constitution that requires support from at least a third of senators to pass. Nearly all attempts to do so after the coup have failed due to Senate votes, despite the proposals clearing the elected lower house.

The upper house also holds the keys to appointments of independent bodies that can sway national politics, including the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court. The two agencies have had an outsized role in blocking progressive reforms, especially in dissolving political parties that they deem have broken the rules.

(Updates with changes in restrictions in 12th paragraph.)

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