Dilemmas in the new electoral system

opinion September 25, 2017 01:00

By Punchada Sirivunnabood
Special to The Nation

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AS THAILAND’s military government sets out its road map to democracy and an election, anticipation and anxiety are both running high.

Steps have been taken to implement a schedule for elections. The organic law on political parties and the organic law on elections are almost ready for launch. These two laws, though, seem to contradict one another. While the law on political parties pushes toward stronger party organisation, the law on elections emphasises the role of individual candidates.

Drafters expect the organic law on parties will promote strong party affiliation and party rootedness. New articles in the law promote party institutionalisation. For instance, the law introduces primary elections for candidate nomination, with an eye toward giving party members control over the nomination process. According to the law, party members will be able to vote for up to 15 candidates from a list of 100 people in their constituencies, and the names of the top two vote-getters will be reported to the nomination committee. The drafters hope that this new process will enhance the role of party members and therefore lead to stronger party organisation. Parties would no longer be set up as ad hoc institutions for elections, as the organisations would have real power.

Primary elections, however, have been criticised by both politicians and scholars who argue that a small subset of party members cannot adequately reflect the voice of the people. There is a danger that primaries might promote a clan system in the political arena. Moreover, primaries will also cause difficulties for small parties due to their limited membership. Small parties are unlikely to survive if the system is implemented. Even the large parties do not tend to have long membership rolls, let alone have them in all constituencies, as required by the new law. Beyond just finding members, parties would risk dissolution if any of their constituent members committed any wrongdoing. Despite these major concerns, the drafters of the organic law intend to implement the primary system in the next election.

In addition, the new organic law on parties requires members to contribute membership fees. Only fee-paying members can take part in the party’s internal activities. The Election Commission will also use the number of fee-paying members to calculate state funding for political parties. These institutions are meant to compel parties to rely more on their membership rather than leaders.

While the organic law on party stimulates party institutionalisation, the organic law on elections introduces articles that have the opposite effect, weakening the role of parties over candidates. Under this new electoral system, the mixed member apportionment system (MMA), voters will cast a single, fused ballot for a candidate instead of casting two separate votes as in the previous election, where they selected both a candidate and a party for the party-list.

The fused ballot will count as both a vote for the candidate and simultaneously a vote for that candidate’s party for purposes of the party list seats. The total number of votes a party receives nationwide via this single vote will determine the allocation of party-list members of parliament allocated to each party. The 150-party list seats will be distributed among parties according to the proportion of these district votes they receive. This single ballot system will likely make voters think of their vote as primarily a candidate vote instead of a party vote. Candidates will potentially conduct campaigns to favour themselves, leaving aside the party policy.

The new organic law on elections also allows candidates to have their own number in each constituency. This means there will be no unique nationwide number for the party. This system will make voters focus on candidates rather than party.

The calculation system under the MMA also places an emphasis on the number of votes each candidate wins. Article 114 of the organic law on elections states that the ECT would announce the election results when the returns from at least 95 per cent of constituencies are ready. If there is reported electoral fraudulence in any district, the votes from that district will not be calculated for the party list seats.

The numbers of votes from those districts will be recalculated again for the party list seats when the re-election is conducted. By doing so, some incumbents in the party list system may be replaced by new parliamentarians after the re-calculation. This system, once again, places emphasis on the district candidates while weakening the role of party-list parliamentarians.

While the organic law on parties pushes forward party institutionalisation, the organic law on elections tends to favour individual candidates. By implementing the new electoral law, voters will have the luxury of voting for their favourite politician, potentially divorced from their party preference. At the same time, the organic law on parties will push politicians together into stronger parties. The two organic laws seem to present opposing forces in party system development. Of course, electoral engineering in Thailand has previously met with unexpected consequences. With an election on the horizon, we will be forced to wait and see how these new organic laws change the Thai political party landscape.

Punchada Sirivunnabood is a lecturer in political sciences in the Faculty of social sciences and humanities, Mahidol University.