How amended election-related laws will reshape Thailand’s political landscape
Ten draft bills to amend election laws will be deliberated by Parliament this Thursday and Friday (Feb 24-25) – but most are expected to hit obstacles.
The bills are designed to amend two organic laws – the MP Election Act and the Political Parties Act – to reflect earlier constitutional changes to revive the two-ballot voting system and change the House’s composition to 400 constituency MPs and 100 party-list MPs.
The March 2019 general election used a single ballot to elect 350 constituency MPs and 150 party-list MPs.
Under the microscope
Of the 10 bills, four cover changes to the electoral law and six to the political party law.
The four electoral bills were drawn up separately by ruling coalition parties, the opposition camp, the opposition Move Forward Party, and the Election Commission (EC), which was submitted for parliamentary deliberation by the Cabinet.
The six political party bills were proposed separately by the EC, coalition parties, the opposition, opposition leader Pheu Thai, Move Forward, and the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.
Government whips have agreed that the coalition parties will base their amendments to the MP Election Act on the EC draft, according to Nikorn Chamnong, a senior whip from the coalition Chartthai Pattana Party.
Meanwhile, for the Political Parties Act, the government side will focus on the coalition parties’ amendment bill, not the EC draft. “The bill drafted by the EC and submitted by Cabinet does not cover all the necessary changes,” he explained.
Parliamentary readings of all 10 bills are due to be completed by August before any amendments are submitted for royal endorsement.
However, pessimistic analysts doubt any of the amendment bills will make it through all three readings.
From one ballot to two
Most observers, though, expect the amendments for the election of MPs and political parties to sail through Parliament, as their revisions are needed to comply with earlier changes made to the Constitution.
The new electoral system will be used in the next general election, which will come after the House completes its four-year term in March next year – unless Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha opts for early dissolution.
Small and medium-size parties have opposed the two-ballot system, which they say is beneficial to bigger parties and damages their chances of winning constituency and party-list seats.
Many analysts reckon a large party like Pheu Thai has strong chance of winning by a landslide in the next general election. In the previous election, under the single-ballot system, Pheu Thai won plenty of constituencies but no party-list seats.
The revived two-ballot system is also expected to benefit the coalition Democrat Party. Through the dedicated party-list ballot, the Democrats should attract strong support from their loyal voters, observers say.
Pheu Thai’s draft bill seeks to amend the Political Parties Act so parties can accept advice from non-member outsiders — an offense that currently carries a penalty of disbandment.
The bill is aimed at “removing any ambiguity in the law”, Pheu Thai leader Chonlanan Srikaew said, though critics view it as paving the way for self-exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra to officially exert influence over the party. Thaksin’s recent moves have sparked several complaints that he is interfering in the party.
Analysts reckon that Pheu Thai’s amendment is unlikely to be approved by Parliament.
Universal candidacy number
On the election bill, parliamentary debate is expected to focus on whether each political party should be designated the same candidacy number for both party-list and constituency elections.
The EC’s draft does not require that every party get a single number for both party-list and constituency elections.
While using the same number for both systems would certainly be more convenient for voters, politicians view the matter in a different light, said Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute.
He said parties with strong or well-known constituency candidates tend not to worry about this issue. However, small parties and those with loyal supporters — such as Pheu Thai and the Democrats — would prefer the same number, as this would be easier for voters who vote along party lines.
The analyst said the use of different candidacy numbers could lead to more voided ballots, as voters mix up the numbers of their preferred candidate and their favorite party.
Relaxing primary-vote rule
Political parties agree that it is currently difficult to meet the legal requirement for primaries to select their electoral candidates.
The original law requires a primary vote for every constituency. The proposed amendments would merely require hearings of party members in every province to select candidates.
Only the Cabinet draft requires that candidates be selected by a vote in every province.
Stithorn reckoned that senators will strongly oppose relaxing the requirement as most of them backed the original primary-vote system in the Political Parties Act of 2017. Drafters of the original law argued that the vote was needed to prevent financiers from dominating political parties.
“It will be a fierce battle between MPs and senators. The latter may argue the primary vote ensures reform of political parties,” said Stithorn.
Future political landscape
After the two amended laws come into force, analysts expect a largely unchanged political landscape with two dominant major parties.
Former Election Commission member Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, who is a staunch government critic, said that under the revived two-ballot system, large parties will have a better chance of winning more MP seats from both constituency and party-list elections.
He expected the two dominant parties in constituency elections to account for more than half of the 100 party-list MP seats up for grabs. The remaining seats would be shared among the middle-sized and small parties, he added.
None of the small parties with a single party-list MP would survive the next national vote, he predicted.
In 2019, those parties benefited from a complex calculation method that offered a party-list MP seat for gaining fewer than 40,000 votes.
With the two-ballot system restored in the next election, the total number of party-list votes will be divided by 100 – the number of party-list MPs – to determine how many votes are needed to win a seat. Given the previous voter turnout, a party will require at least 300,000 votes to win a party-list MP seat.
Stithorn said the new system would benefit the two big parties — Pheu Thai and Palang Pracharath — although the latter would be hit by mass defections following severe infighting.
The analyst did not foresee any substantial change for the opposition’s so-called “progressive” parties. Pheu Thai and Move Forward would remain core parties of the camp but smaller opposition parties would suffer defections or merge with larger parties before the next election, he said.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk