Thailand may be about to violate a near-iron law of electoral-system change: that no country, having abandoned a multi-seat nontrnasferable-vote (NTV) electoral system ever reverts to such a system. *
In its 1997 constitution, adopted in the wake of a serious political and financial crisis, Thailand replaced its MNTV system (M>1 seats in a district, each voter casting up to M votes, and top M vote-earners elected) with a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system. Under the MMM system, 400 MPs were elected in single-seat districts and the other 100 in parallel via closed-list, national-district PR.
Since shortly after last year’s military coup, there has been a constitutional re-drafting process underway. It appears the Thai drafters are about to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
On 9 February, The Nation (a major Bangkok paper) noted:
The party-list MPs and single-MP constituency elections will be scrapped, the constitution drafting subcommittee chaired by Charan Pakdithanakul ruled yesterday.
In other words, not only will there be no MMM system and no national party-list PR tier, but there will also be a return to NTV. This could mean a reversion to the old system of MNTV, or it could even mean SNTV. Either way, it would be quite a regression from a system that was helping build parties out of the weak regional and personal vehicles that existed previously. It would bring Thailand back to a system that exacerbated some of the worst features of Thai politics.
The reasoning is ironic. From the same news article:
The main reason for scrapping the party-list MPs is because the system allows capitalists to rise to power through money politics.
Of course, in a capitalist system the capitalists are sure to have political power, but putting that aside, is money politics worse with party lists than with NTV? The old system, and its counterparts wherever they have been used (Japan, Colombia, Taiwan, etc.), requires candidates to raise large sums of money to differentiate themselves from other candidates, including candidates using the same party label. (The differentiation premium is stronger with SNTV, because of the indivisibility of each voter’s support and the need that a party has to ensure its votes are distributed efficiently across multiple candidates if it is to be able to elect more than one in a district; however, the problem exists with MNTV as well, for not all voters will use all their votes, or cast all of them for candidates of the same party. In its favor, SNTV makes the representation of minorities much easier than does MNTV.)
There is little doubt that in systems with weak parties, such as Thailand, parties can literally sell list slots for campaign cash and guarantee victory to the buyer (assuming the lists are closed, as they were in Thailand). I assume this is where the claim that party lists promoted money politics has come from. However, to assess the impact of an electoral system, we must not compare its effects against those of a perfect world in which all corruption has been eliminated, but rather to what other systems will do in the same context. That Thai leaders already have experienced what NTV does and yet are ready to revert to such a system shows either shocking lack of memory or shocking contempt for democratic development.
The MMM system was far from perfect. In fact, in one sense, it worked too well. It buttressed the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Its disproportionality gave TRT a huge bonus in seats compared to its votes total,** while the closed lists (and to a lesser degree, the single- rather than multi-seat districts) greatly centralized intra-party authority. However, given the extreme fragmentation–across and within parties–under the pre-1997 system, this was what was needed.
If the MMM system overshot its goals, by strengthening TRT too much at the expense of its rivals (on the interparty dimension) and the TRT leadership at the expense of its rank and file (the intraparty dimension), then the possible solutions would be really simple:
1. Expand the size of the list tier as a share of the total number of seats.
2. Link the tiers, that is changing to (or towards) MMP rather than MMM.
3. Regionalize the party list rather than have a single national district for this tier.
4. Make the list open (or flexible) rather than closed.
Any one of these would have moved the system in the desired direction on at least one of the two dimensions, and these solutions are not mutually exclusive, meaning two or all of them could have been employed together. One need not go all the way back to the party-debilitating NTV system of the past. Alas, it looks Thailand will break an iron law.
* I just noticed that in an earlier planting, I had spoken of a potential Mongolian breaking of this “law,” as well. Mongolian had gone from MNTV to FPTP. AS I discuss here, Thailand had gone farther from MTNV by adopting closed party lists as well as FPTP.
** In 2001, 49.6% of seats on 40.6% of votes; in 2005, 75% of the seats on 56.4% of the vote (thanks to its winning 310 of the 400 SSDs).