23 May 2024

After the 250 junta-appointed senators complete their five-year term on May 10, they will be replaced by a 200-member Senate elected from thousands of candidates via a complex voting system that excludes full public participation.

Over 210,000 people have informed the Election Commission (EC) that they wish to run for election to the Senate, and the EC expects at least 100,000 candidates to contest.

However, the six rounds of voting required – two each at the district, provincial and national levels – means all 200 seats in the Upper House will not be filled until mid-July.

Critics describe the selection system as defined in the 2018 Organic Act on the Acquisition of Senators as “the most complicated in the world”. They say that without a national election by all eligible voters, the system will end up selecting senators who represent the applicants rather than the respective occupational groups as intended by the Constitution drafters.

In the interim, the current senators – who are prohibited by the Constitution from seeking another term – will take caretaker roles after their term expires, although they can no longer vote with MPs to select a new prime minister.

Under the current Constitution, in force since April 2017, the Senate consists of 200 members selected by and among “persons having the knowledge, expertise, experience, profession, or characteristics or common interests or working or having worked in varied areas of the society”. However, the charter’s transitory provisions state that during the first five years of the first Parliament, the Senate shall comprise 250 members appointed by the King upon the advice of the junta National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

Tentative schedule

The process to acquire 200 new senators is set to start immediately after the current Senate’s term ends, with a royal decree announcing the senatorial selection expected as early as May 11. That will be followed by an EC declaration on candidate applications and voting dates. Applications will be open between late May and early June.

As per the tentative EC schedule, voting at the district level will be held no later than June 22, followed by the provincial voting a week later, and the national voting by July 9.

The EC is expected to announce the names of the new senators in the Royal Gazette around mid-July.


Who can apply?

Candidates must be Thai nationals by birth, at least 40 years old at the time of application, and have a minimum of 10 years’ experience in the field they wish to represent. They must also have some connection with the district where they apply to contest, either having been born there or studied, stayed, or worked there for at least two consecutive years.

The application fee is 2,500 baht.

There is a long list of 26 kinds of people who are banned from becoming senatorial candidates, including political party members, public officials, senators under the current charter, former MPs, former government ministers, former local administrators, or former political party executives who vacated their seats less than five years ago.

Also prohibited from contesting are parents, spouses and children of senatorial candidates, MPs, senators, political appointees, local administrators, and officials of the Constitutional Court and independent organisations.

Like their predecessors in the current Senate, the new set of senators can only serve one term of five years.


Complicated process

As per the charter, the applicants will vote among themselves over six rounds to eventually select 10 senators from each of the 20 eligible groups, with a reserve list of five candidates for each group.

Among the eligible fields are law and justice, education, public health, agriculture, science and technology, mass communication, employees or workers, business owners, tourism-related professions, industrialists, artists or athletes, independent professionals, women, and elderly, disabled or ethnic groups.

At the district level, candidates will vote within their group. The five people with the most votes will proceed to an inter-group voting round, in which they select their favourite candidates from other randomised groups.

At this stage, the candidates from each professional group will be cut down to three – or 60 for all the 20 groups from every district.

These shortlisted candidates – 55,680 from 928 districts nationwide – will proceed to the provincial race. At the provincial level, two winners will be acquired for each group – 40 for each of the country’s 77 provinces.

That will result in 3,080 senatorial candidates contesting at the national level, where they will repeat the intra-group and inter-group voting to get 10 winners for each of the 20 groups. These 200 final winners will become new senators.


 A first for Thailand

This complicated voting system will be used for the first time in Thai political history, which has seen 12 sets of senators.

The country’s first senate, installed in 1946, was selected through an indirect election by MPs. The six following sets of senators were all appointed. The eighth and ninth senates were directly elected in national votes, while the latter two comprised members who were elected or appointed. The current Senate was appointed by the NCPO.

The new Upper House will have the same duties and power as its predecessor, except for the right to select a new prime minister with the Lower House. The major powers of senators are approving nominations for independent organisations, voting with MPs on constitutional amendments, deliberating bills of law, and scrutinising the government through interpellations and motions for a general debate on its performance or policies.


Concerns of manipulation

There is concern that the new voting system will benefit those already in power and also wealthy and politically connected individuals, despite the original intention of the charter drafters, which was apparently a Senate comprised of nonpartisan experts in their fields.

In response to such worries, EC secretary-general Sawang Boonmee has acknowledged the potential for lobbying and vote-buying but said his agency would set up a network to monitor senatorial candidates with the help of the public and mass media. He called for public participation to help ensure that new senators are experts who truly represent their respective fields.

Civil society groups are also campaigning to attract as many qualified Thai citizens to apply and take part in the senatorial voting, regardless of whether they intend to become senators. They believe that a large number of applicants/voters will increase scrutiny and transparency, making it more difficult and costly to manipulate the voting results.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk