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Small Parties Put Thai Coup Leader on Track to Remain in PM Post

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha attends the coronation procession for Thailand's newly crowned King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Bangkok, Thailand, May 5, 2019.

Thai Prime Minister and 2014 coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha took a giant leap closer to holding on to his post after 11 small parties endorsed his candidacy Monday, although a scramble for control of the lower house of parliament continues.

The 11 parties each landed one of 500 seats in the House of Representatives thanks to an unorthodox formula the junta-appointed election commission devised after the March 24 poll. The algorithm dropped the threshold of votes needed to secure a party-list seat — based on the proportion of nationwide ballots won — from about 71,000 to 30,000.

FILE - Members of the National Legislative Assembly meet at parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 25, 2018 photo.
FILE - Members of the National Legislative Assembly meet at parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 25, 2018 photo.

Along with the expected support of the 250 members of the junta-appointed Senate, their endorsements give the bloc of pro-military parties led by Palang Pracharath the combined majority it needs in both houses to vote Prayuth into a new term.

But with a combined 135 elected seats, the bloc is lagging in the race to shore up a majority in the House of Representatives itself, which it will need to push through any legislation.

Its rival for control of the lower house is the Democracy Front, a bloc of seven parties with 245 seats on a single-minded mission of breaking the stranglehold the military has had on Thai politics since the coup.

The main mid-size parties in play, with more than enough seats to swing the lower house either way, are the Democrat Party and Bhumjaithai. Neither has yet declared for either bloc.

Days after the election, Pheu Thai, the heavyweight of the Democracy Front, offered to consider Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul for prime minister if he joined, said Thepparith Senamngern, a deputy spokesman for Pheu Thai.

Heir to one of Thailand's largest construction companies, Anutin made headlines on the campaign trail for pushing a pro-cannabis platform. He wants to make marijuana — legalized for medical use in February — the country's next major cash crop and give every Thai the chance to grow up to six plants each.

Thepparith said the front was still in "hard negotiations" with Bhumjaithai. But now that the 11 smallest parties have called for Palang Pracharath, he conceded it could only make Anutin prime minister on the off-chance that enough senators break faith with the junta that appointed them and either vote for someone other than Prayuth or abstain.

With a majority in the lower house, he added, the front could not only block legislation from pro-military parties but start rolling back the new Constitution the junta drafted after taking power. He said enough votes in the lower house could bypass attempts by the Senate to block amendments.

"We just need six seats, right, to be [2]51," Thepparith said. "So is it farfetched? I don't think so. Is it a bit hard?.... Yeah."

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, said it was unlikely at best.

He said the 11 parties' decision to declare for Palang Pracharath was expected as a quid pro quo for their seats, and all but certain to cement Prayuth's return as prime minister.

"It's quite certain that they can make Prayuth the prime minister with the 250 senators," he said. "But they also still want to make sure that they have enough seats in the lower house, in the House of Representatives. Otherwise, it wouldn't make sense for them to become a government with a minority voice in the House."

Titipol said Monday's endorsements gave Palang Pracharath the momentum to keep adding to its bloc and that Bhumjaithai and the Democrat Party were likely to end up cutting deals with it as well.

"At the moment, Bhumjaithai and Democrat still can play the game... to get what they want. I don't think they would decide not to be with Palang Pracharath. At the end, they would go with some deal that they get from Palang Pracharath and support Palang Pracharath to form a government," he said.

"If you look back at Thai politics, in the past, it's always like this. They negotiate to have good Cabinet ministries, so that they can perhaps get some interest or benefit to the party."

A spokesman for Palang Pracharath did not reply to requests for comment.

Regardless of which bloc prevails, it could be weeks before Thailand has a new government.

Parliament is due to convene by May 25 and will vote on a prime minister early next month. The new Cabinet will then form in late June, clearing the way for the junta and the government it set up after the coup, the National Council for Peace and Order, to step down.