Under pressure over the sale of shares in a giant telecoms company, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has dissolved parliament. Early elections will take place on 2 April.
Meanwhile, the people of the Philippines will be under a state of emergency as they mark the twentieth anniversary of the ‘People Power’ revolution that restored democracy. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued the declaration because of an alleged coup plot. Arroyo, accused of irregularities in her reelection in 2004, survived an impeachment attempt last year and an army mutiny in 2003.
The Philippine state of emergency is obviously bad news for democracy, but the Thai dissolution is potentially good news. Thaksin won a masive majority in 2005, with his Thai Rak Thai party holding 75% of the seats (on around 56% of the vote). Elections would have been held again only in 2009. Parliamentary systems, such as Thailand, usually have mechanisms for early elections, but it is rare for them to be invoked so early in the term of a single-party government with such a large majority. But as the Bangkok Post discusses in good detail, the political crisis is deep, with some of the opposition undertaking actions outside the constitutional framework (in part because the large victory by TRT, exaggerated even further by the electoral system1, makes the parliamentary opposition so weak). Resorting to an early election is a good safety valve for seeking a resolution of the crisis within a constitutional framework.2
Whatever the outcome of the election, the dissolution of parliament in Thailand offers a possibility for electoral resolution of the political crisis that is lacking in the Philippines, where Arroyo’s term is constitutionally fixed (unless an impeachment process were to succeed in removing her, and even then there would not be an early election3).
1. It is a mixed-member majoritarian system: a tier of
250 400 single-seat districts with plurality rule and a nationwide tier of 250 100 PR seats, allocated in parallel (i.e. non-compensatory). It has done what it was designed to do in the two elections since it replaced the former MNTV system: reduce intra-party fragmentation that resulted from the lack of cohesive parties fighting over multiple seats in each district under the old system–the other side of MNTV, in contrast to the side shown recently in Palestine–and generate majorities out of what had been a fragmented multi-party system. One might say it has worked too well, especially in 2005.
2. I do not know enough about Thai politics to know whether TRT is likely to repeat its large victory, especially with such a short time for the opposition to organize a campaign, or whether either a change of government or at least a much smaller governing TRT majority might result.
3. One quirk of the Philippine presidential system is that the vice president is separately elected–on the same day as the president, but on a separate ballot. That is how Arroyo herself became president originally, having been elected to the vice presidency in 1998 and later succeeding President Estrada, who was impeached. Another quirk is that Philippine presidents cannot be reelected–unless they were not elected to their first term. Because she succeeded to the presidency when it had been vacated in 2001, she was elgible to run for a full term in 2004 at what would have been the end of her term as vice president, had Estrada served out his term.