14 July 2024

Staunch government critic Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, who was sacked as an election commissioner in 2018 by the post-coup junta, is back in the limelight with a campaign to “switch off” the Senate’s power to join MPs in selecting a prime minister.

His campaign seeks to change Article 272 of the Constitution, which empowers the Upper House to help select the PM during their five-year term under the current Constitution, which has been in force since April 2017.

The campaign group argues on its website (www.nosenatevote.net) that prime ministers should be selected by MPs only and that it is anti-democratic for unelected senators to help leaders cling on to power. The current Senate was appointed by the junta following the 2014 coup.

Gaining head start

A jubilant Somchai, 63, gained a boost before Monday’s campaign launch, securing the backing of opposition parties to go with the 38,000 citizens who pledged their support on its website as of Sunday.

The goal is to collect 70,000 signatures needed to trigger a people’s motion in the House of Representatives and launch the process to amend Article 272.

Over the past week, Somchai has met with leaders of Pheu Thai, Seree Ruam Thai, Prachachat and Thai Sang Thai parties, who promised to back his campaign.

Somchai said his group is also trying to muster support from senators, particularly the 56 who previously voted for a constitutional amendment to curtail senatorial powers.

A press conference on Monday (Jan 17) for the campaign’s official launch will explain why removing the Senate’s power to choose a prime minister is necessary, he added.

“All sides will benefit [from backing this cause],” he insisted. “Senators who support this amendment will be praised by the public. And they can relieve themselves of this useless burden.”

Somchai is confident the amendment has a good chance of attracting enough votes to sail through Parliament. Many parliamentarians will feel more relaxed about voting for this one-issue motion than an amendment on multiple clauses, he said.

However, it remains to be seen whether his latest mission will succeed.

To pass the first reading, a draft amendment needs votes from more than half of the two Houses combined, plus support from at least one-third of the 250 senators.

To pass the third reading, it needs support from at least 376 lawmakers, including at least 84 senators and 43 opposition MPs.

Man of many missions

An associate professor, Somchai is a veteran of many missions. They include political science lecturer, vice rector of Thammasat University, executive of the Open Forum for Democracy Foundation (PNET), and member of the Election Commission (EC), serving from December 2013 until his removal in March 2018.

General Prayut Chan-o-cha, then chief of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order, used his special powers to sack Somchai. Prayut cited Somchai’s “inappropriate comments that could confuse the public” about the procedures and schedule of the general election.

Born on October 23, 1958, in Samut Sakhon province, Somchai received his bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from Prince of Songkla University and his master’s in the same field from the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA).

He assumed several executive posts while working at Thammasat. He also served as an adviser to many ministries and state agencies, including the National Economic and Social Advisory Council and the Public Sector Development Commission.

Before joining the EC, he was director and secretary of PNET, a non-governmental organisation focused on local networking for democracy and elections.

Eight months after being fired from the EC, Somchai joined the Democrat Party to contest the March 2019 general election in his home province but failed to get elected.

However, he quit the Democrats in June 2019 after learning the party had decided to join the coalition government to be led by Gen Prayut. In his resignation letter, Somchai cited a “difference in ideologies”.

Despite his expulsion from the EC, he has continued to criticize Prayut’s government, particularly regarding electoral matters.

Somchai is now a member of the opposition Seree Ruam Thai. As an academic, he serves as director of Rangsit University’s Political Research and Development Centre.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk