100 or 500: How seat calculation method could decide Thai election winner

Thaksin Shinawatra’s recent boast that his proxy party Pheu Thai could win by a landslide at the next general election, expected early next year, seems to have scared leaders in the ruling coalition.

The fear apparently prompted them to make a last-minute change to the draft election bill, by switching the formula used to calculate how many votes are needed for a party to earn one of the 100 party-list MP seats in Parliament.

Parliament last Wednesday (July 6) voted to approve a proposal by New Palang Dharma Party leader Ravee Maschamadol to divide the total number of party-list votes by 500, rather than 100 as originally proposed. The 500 figure is the total number of MP seats in Parliament.

Ravee cited the Constitution’s principle that “every vote counts”, though he admitted his proposal would also ensure smaller parties could win seats with fewer votes while reducing the chances of a landslide win by a large party.

The Constitution was amended last year to change the composition of the next Lower House from 350 constituency MPs and 150 party-list MPs to 400 and 100 respectively.

Who gains and who loses?

Observers point out that the new calculation method will boost smaller parties’ chances of winning parliamentary seats at the cost of large parties.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said small and medium-size parties would need far fewer votes to win a party-list seat under the “500” formula.

Based on voter turnout of 35 million at the 2019 general election, parties would need about 70,000 votes to win a party-list seat under the new formula – compared to 350,000 votes under the “100” formula.

“[Under the original formula], it was difficult for medium-size parties to win seats while the door was completely shut for small parties to gain any seats,” said the analyst.

Meanwhile, the 500 calculation would also reduce the chance of large parties gaining an absolute majority in the House.

Yuthaporn notes that the amended election bill also caps the number of MPs each party can win according to the party’s total votes.

If a party reaches that cap via constituency wins, it would not be allocated any party-list MP seats.

Pheu Thai fell victim to this scenario in the previous election. The party won the most constituency MP seats (136) but gained no party-list MP seats because it had already exceeded its cap of 110 seats.

Move Forward may ‘benefit most’

Former election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn expects Pheu Thai will gain at least “some seats” via the party-list system at the next election.

However, he reckons fellow opposition party Move Forward will “benefit most” from the new calculation formula, winning as many as 30 of the 100 party-list seats up for grabs.

“Under this formula, parties that win lots of constituency MP seats will get fewer party-list seats, while parties that lose in constituencies will gain more party-list seats if they get a sizeable vote from the second ballot,” Somchai wrote in a Facebook post last week.

He also warned “tiny parties” not to be overoptimistic as “the cake has become smaller”, a reference to the reduction in party-list seats from 150 to 100. He said the number of votes required to win a party-list seat could rise to 100,000 – not 70,000 as initially estimated – to prevent overspill of seats beyond 100.

Pheu Thai to seek charter court ruling on party-list seat calculation method

Why did ruling party make U-turn?

Many analysts agree that the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, which earlier favored the division-by-100 calculation for party-list MPs, changed its mind in a bid to prevent a possible landslide victory by Pheu Thai, the core opposition party.

Previously, it had been more beneficial for Palang Pracharath to suppress small parties, whose bargaining and nagging could destabilize its post-election coalition government. However, after the ruling party suffered the departure of master dealmaker Thammanat Prompow’s faction, it is now likely to shrink further and perhaps become a medium-size party after the next election, some analysts said.

They added that the 500 formula could help boost the number of MPs from small and medium-size parties that would be Palang Pracharath’s potential allies in a post-poll coalition. That explains why the Cabinet switched to 500 after the original election bill featuring the 100 formula had passed the first reading, analysts said.

Pheu Thai revises strategy

Many observers say the government’s U-turn on the calculation method was an attempt to block a landslide win, especially by Pheu Thai. Yuthaporn agreed, but doubted the calculation method alone would result in a landslide victory.

“Winning by a landslide is about the popularity of a party. If Pheu Thai wants to win such a big victory, it needs to garner MP seats across the country, including seats in the South,” he said.

Pheu Thai has never won a House seat in the southern provinces, which are the traditional stronghold of the coalition Democrat Party.

However, the main opposition party – whose coalition government was toppled by the 2014 military coup – has devised a strategy to thwart any attempt to cap the number of its MPs.

The plan is to set up an offshoot sister party named the “Pheu Thai Family” with the goal of winning as many party-list seats as possible. Meanwhile Pheu Thai would focus on constituency contests, according to party leader Cholnan Srikaew.

Post-election political landscape

The 500 formula would leave the political landscape after the next general election unchanged from the previous one in 2019, Yuthaporn reckons.

The analyst predicts the post-election coalition government will lack stability thanks to its many small and medium-size parties. He expects more bargaining and deal-making among coalition politicians, echoing the shaky birth of the coalition led by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha after the 2019 election.

However, he does not rule out the possibility of a party winning an absolute majority to form a government on its own. But he added that the old days of two dominant parties were over. Instead, small and medium-size parties would gain seats in the House of Representatives.

Legal hurdle awaits

Yuthaporn believes the revised election bill is unconstitutional because the amended Constitution aims to make the allocation of 100 party-list MP seats directly proportional to the party-list votes. So, 100 should be used in the calculation, not 500, he said.

Pheu Thai said it will ask the Constitutional Court to rule on whether the revision violates the charter. Cholnan said the party would also bring the matter to the attention of the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

According to law, the revised bill must be submitted to the Constitutional Court, Election Commission (EC), and Supreme Court for review to determine if it is constitutional.

“It will be interesting to see whether the EC, which proposed the ‘100’ figure to calculate the number of party-list seats, will endorse the revised version,” Yuthaporn said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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