Saying the quiet part out loud in Thai politics

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Saying the quiet part out loud in Thai politics Paetongtarn Shinawatra (center), daughter of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is leading polls along with her family’s Pheu Thai party ahead of the May 7 general election, Dec. 6, 2022.
Sakchai Lalit/AP

Updated at 1:43 p.m. ET on 2023-05-05

Thai Sen. Wanchai Sornsiri caused a stir recently when he posted on his Facebook page that he and a group of senators will block efforts to elect Paetongtarn Shinawatra the next prime minister, regardless of whether Pheu Thai won a plurality, or even a majority of the lower house in the May 7 general election. Since then, the senate and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha have tried to walk back his statement.

Yet Wanchai’s only sin was saying the quiet part out loud.

When Prayuth and other military leaders staged their coup d’état in 2014, they stated their intention to never have to throw another coup. The 2017 Thai constitution was written by a group of very conservative pro-military lawyers who have tried to ensure that.

At the core is the senate, a 250-member upper house whose members are hand selected by the military leadership. Most of the senators are uniformed military personnel and police, while many of the remaining members are retired military or ultra-royalist elites.

Unusual for an upper house, the Thai senate has a direct role in electing the prime minister. As such, winning an outright majority of the 500 lower house seats, or being able to put together a majority coalition, is insufficient to form a government.

Any political leader who does not have the explicit backing of the military and ultra-royalist elites would need to win more than 376 lower house seats to overcome the senate’s veto.

And while senators go to pains to say they are not a block, this is naive. Given their background, they are part of the chain of command. If ordered to vote for a candidate, they will vote for that candidate.

And for the remainder, their charge as senators since 2019 has been clear – to exorcise the Shinawatras from the Thai body politic. In 2019, except for a handful of recusals, the senate voted unanimously for Prayuth to establish a fractious coalition government.

It’s worth restating Sen. Wanchai’s warning: “The prime minister’s post is not a toy for anyone or any clan,” implicitly referring to the Shinawatra family which has produced two prime ministers, both of whom were ousted in coup d’états in 2006 and 2014.


“The prime minister is a symbol of pride for the entire nation, and it’s not right to make anyone prime minister like what happened in the past. Its a slap in the face for Thais and parliamentarians,” he said.

According to recent polling, Pheu Thai is poised to win a plurality of the vote and possibly an outright majority.

It has done so in the past. Indeed Pheu Thai – and its previous iterations – is the only party to have won a majority in parliament. Paetongtarn is leading with 34 percent, far ahead of the incumbent, and Pheu Thai is the most popular party in almost every region of the country, according to polling.

Yet in 2019, despite having a plurality of the vote, the party was not given the opportunity to form a government, a standard practice in a Westminster parliamentary system. The senate voted en bloc to ensure that didn’t happen.

And Wanchai made clear that is likely to be the case again in 2023.

“I’ve clearly seen and heard that Pheu Thai will make a landslide win and it will select Ung-Ing as its prime minister. This is Pheu Thai’s matter, but my group and my allies will not vote for her. So, if Ung-Ing wants to be the prime minister, Pheu Thai must garner 376 votes and all of those votes must accept her,” he said, referring to Paetongtarn by her nickname.


The government, military and senate are trying to deflect concerns that they are poised to steal the election again, stating that Wanchai’s views are his alone.

“I cannot control the senate. Senators have their personal opinions,” Prayuth told the press, trying to keep a straight face.

He and others have reiterated that the senators vote according to their consciences – the consciences of people who endorsed two coup d’états to overturn democratically elected governments.

The senate has tried to signal that it will not be overturning the will of the people and that it will endorse whomever wins a majority of the vote. But this is a non-binding public pronouncement, not a law.

Members are terrified of the optics about another stolen election, but steal they will.

For her part, Paetongtarn, is blithely naive to believe that the senate will endorse her even if she leads her party to victory, given recent Thai political history. The royalist and military elites are not going to allow a 36-year-old to govern as a proxy for her father. Why would they undo 17 years and two coups?

Pheu Thai, for its part, has also proposed two less-triggering candidates, party leader Cholnan Srikaew and property tycoon Srettha Thavisin, but it’s hard to see them being given an opportunity to form a government.

In Thai politics, it’s clearly loser takes all. You just can’t say the quiet part out loud.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the graphic with this report incorrectly said that the 250 senators were to be selected by the current government.


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