Election fraud conviction no laughing matter for ‘funny-man’ of Thai politics
A court ruling against Theptai Senapong has brought the curtain crashing down on one of Thailand’s most colourful political performers. Renowned for his sense of humour, the senior Democrat politician had nothing to smile about on January 27 when the Constitutional Court terminated his status as an MP over election fraud.
The 59-year-old won voters’ hearts with his humorous and outspoken manner – though for many observers his jokes often fell flat.
“Khun Theptai Senapong is one of those politicians who try to be funny but fail regularly. But at least he is trying to do something beneficial,” historian Prof Nidhi Eoseewong once wrote in his collection of political commentaries, “Ling Lok Phrai” (Monkeys Fooling Commoners).
Theptai’s fate suddenly turned serious when he was banned from politics for 10 years and then lost his seat as a representative of southern Nakhon Si Thammarat province.
He first won the seat for Democrat Party in 2001.
But in August last year, the Nakhon Si Thammarat Provincial Court found Theptai and his brother, former provincial mayor Manote, guilty of fraud in a 2014 local election contested by Manote.
The court sentenced each brother to two years in jail and banned them from elections for 10 years. Both appealed against the ruling.
One month later, the Election Commission asked the Constitutional Court to rule on Theptai’s MP status, citing charter clauses that prohibit any person deprived of electoral rights from contesting an election. Theptai claimed the clauses do not apply directly to his case.
That seat will be contested in a by-election on March 7, where the Democrats have decided to field Theptai’s younger brother Pongsin, leveraging the Senapong clan’s strong local support base.
Born on March 12, 1961, in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Theptai’s interest in politics goes back to his university days. An activist in his teens, he rose to become head of the student union at Thailand’s largest university, Ramkhamhaeng.
After graduating with a law degree, he joined the now-defunct Palang Dharma Party, which was founded by then-popular Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang.
Long career path
In 1988, the young Theptai was appointed as aide to Palang Dharma MP Chamni Sakdiseth, and later became his secretary when Chamni served as deputy interior minister from 1992-1994 and again from 1997-1980.
Theptai then followed his boss’s lead when Chamni moved to the Democrat Party.
He stepped into electoral politics at the January 2001 general election, contesting for a seat in his home province. He won and has been re-elected at every poll since.
Theptai’s political career reached its peak after Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister in 2008. Theptai was appointed spokesman for the party and for Abhisit, and set about attacking the Democrat’s red-shirt rivals with gusto.
He was among the “Ice-cream Gang” – a small group of Abhisit’s close aides that also included Satit Wongnongtoey, Sirichok Sopha and Kobsak Sabhavasu.
He now joins a tiny band of well-known politicians who have been sentenced to jail for electoral fraud.
Five years earlier in August 2015, the Supreme Court sentenced former Samut Prakan mayor Chonsawat Asavahame to 18 months in jail for electoral fraud – after a 16-year legal battle. Chonsawat was convicted of vote-rigging as he sought re-election as mayor of Samut Prakan City in May 1999.
In September 2016, he was granted a Royal pardon and released after serving 13 months in jail.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk