Thailand political reforms (yes, again)

The current Thai political reform process, underway since the military coup of 2014, is churning out some significant changes. Already, decisions appear to have been made to move to mixed-member proportional (MMP), with the list-tier seats allocated via open party lists.

Thailand in the past has used mixed-member majoritarian (MMM or “parallel”). It has used multiple nontransferable votes (MNTV, also misleadingly known as “block vote”). It has used MMM and MNTV together. But MMP with open lists would be new, and not only to Thailand.*

The Bangkok Post, on 25 February, refers to various other matters under consideration, although it is vague on specifics.

To prevent the executive branch from being placed in a weakened position by squabbling coalition partners, it was decided that if the opposition wins a no-confidence vote, the House of Representatives would be automatically dissolved.

Constitution Drafting Committee spokesman Khamnoon Sitthisamarn is quoted as saying that under the new electoral system, coalition governments are expected to be the norm, and so they are seeking to make it more costly to change governments between elections.

The CDC spokesman said this would cause the opposition to think carefully about filing a no-confidence motion and only do so if it was really necessary and the government had made serious mistakes.

There could be more measures aimed at making governments stable:

Mr Khamnoon said there will be other measures to prevent parties in the coalition threatening to leave purely in order to obtain benefits from the core parties leading the coalition. These measures would be decided later, he said.

The new constitution will bar independent candidates from running. Given MMP, one would expect few incentives for independents in any case. There will also be a provision that appears to undermine the very idea of open lists:

Another requirement is that in order to be declared a winner, an elected candidate must have received more votes than the total “no votes” cast by those who do not wish to vote for any candidate on the list.

This is not very clear. On the one hand, an open list system in which voters can vote for the party rather than a candidate is unremarkable. However, if it is genuinely an open list, votes solely for the list do not affect who is elected from that list, and in what order; this still depends only on candidates’ ranks in preference votes. If a candidate needs more preference votes than there were list-only votes, then this is not an open list, as presumably few will cross such a threshold, implying that a pre-election list order would have to be a default. That would be a “flexible” (semi-open) list, and probably not a very flexible one in practice.

Clearly there are details to be worked out.

* I know of no such case at the national level. The German state of Bavaria is sometimes said to be MMP with a tier of open lists. However, I remain uncertain whether that characterization is precise. Years ago I proposed a hybrid MMP/OLPR system before knowing of the Bavarian system. It seems Bavaria uses a system similar to what I proposed, although perhaps different in key details.

20 thoughts on “Thailand political reforms (yes, again)

  1. The system will actually be MMP-BG or Mixed Member Proportional under the barrel of a gun. The electoral arrangements are considerably less significant than the willingness of the palace and the armed forces to remove elected governments. Thaksin and his allies have won every general election since 2001 and each of those governments was removed by armed force, royal decree, or (occasionally) by order of various monitory agencies.

    If the junta holds a fair election the ‘water buffaloes’, a Bankok elite expression for Thaksin supported who mainly live outside the capital, will again elect a Thaksin ally and I’d imagine that government will in due course be removed by armed force or royal decree. Many of the corruption and misconduct allegations against Thaksin and his allies are certainly true. Nevertheless, Thailand will not get a responsible government until the palace and the army stop intervening.

    Thailand has had 6 constitutions since 1991 and the public relations document being drafted by the junta-appointed CDC will be the seventh in that time. I’ve tried to find a comprehensive list of coups since 1991 but it’s somewhat challenging. I count 6 cases of removal by the armed forces, 4 cases of removal by the Constitutional Court after adverse findings by various monitory commissions, and 1 case of removal by royal decree. Yingluck Shinawatra, the most recently deposed prime minister was ‘impeached’ earlier this year by the junta-appointed ‘parliament’, a process that unsurprisingly resulted in conviction and disbarment from running for parliament.

    Once a nation sinks into coup culture it can be very hard to get out.


    • To be clear, my posting of news and comments on political design issues in an authoritarian state does not necessarily mean that I believe a transition to democracy in said state is underway, or will be successful. But I still think such debates are of interest. And, of course, some states do escape the “coup culture”. I have no idea whether Thailand will do so. It is hard to be optimistic.


    • What do you think will happen when the current King, who is from what I’ve read generally popular, dies?


      • I am unsure.

        The current religious/poltical authority of the throne is actually atypical for Thai history. It is an ancient tradition that dates from the the late 1950s and early 1960s when the king became an equal partner, and sometimes a dominant partner, to the military. Remarkably the term ‘network monarchy’ is used as though the throne were the latest modern invention from Silicon Valley. The current form of monarchy is a strange mix of Tibet and Meiji Japan.

        What is real is that the monarchy enjoys an unprecedented degree of veneration among Thailand’s Buddhist population and. to a lesser extent, among Thai Muslims. Apart from the rotating door prime ministership, the king controls most appointments in the armed forces, the courts, the Buddhist hierarchy, and the bureaucracy. That is at least in part a product of practices like closing bridges when the king travels underneath so that no-one can be ‘above’ the king.

        The crown prince is said to be a corrupt playboy, but that may only be political allegations by the old men around the king. Broadly, you cannot exercise leadership in Thailand without distributing benefits to your supporters and only the king has access to the vast wealth that drives the monarchy. The crown prince is also supposed to be close to Thaksin, although again that may be the men close to the current king fearing a succession. One reason for the elite’s fear of Thaksin is that his vast wealth was seen as an alternate source of patronage to the king. The crown prince recently divorced his wife and she and her family were subsequently charged with corruption Reportage on the royal family is limited because it attracts serious criminal sanctions, including for material published outside Thailand.

        There will certainly be at least some time when the new king does not enjoy the same degree of authority and veneration as the current king and when his networks of supporters and appointees have not yet replaced his father’s supporters and appointees in control of the armed forces, the courts, the bureaucracy, the clergy and Thai business. There was a good reason for the demise of the crown rule in the UK where most offices vacated automatically on a royal death.


    • Alan, I broadly agree with what you are saying. However, I still think that MMP would be an improvement. The idea seems to be to stop Thai Rak Thai/Pheu Thai winning a majority of seats with a minority of the vote, which the military leaders presumably hope will lead to more consultative government, and, from their position, less ‘need’ to launch a coup.


      • Just for clarity, the palace and the military do not repeatedly overthrow Thaksin governments because they are elected on a minority of the vote. They overthrow him precisely because he represents an electoral majority. Repeated military interventions are a cause, not an outcome, of government instability and electoral failure.


      • I see what you mean, but the idea seems to be to try and improve the electoral process (ensuring governments are elected on a majority of the vote, which not all Thaskin governments have been) to try and get rid of coups (which are caused by the military resenting Thaskin government decisions that are ‘unconsultative’). Sort of the wrong way around, and rather self-serving of the military government, but at least they are moving vaguely in the right direction.


      • The junta were not particularly consultative when they overthrew the elected government, abolished the constitution, and and imposed nationwide repression to shut down the Red Shirt movement.

        In efforts to quell anticoup sentiment and end the Bangkok protests, hundreds of people were detained, often in undisclosed locations, immediately following the coup. Some received summons via telephone or in person, while others saw their names broadcast on national television during programming interruptions. Amnesty International reported in September that at least 665 individuals had been arbitrarily detained or ordered to report to the NCPO on vague grounds. Of these, 395 were affiliated with the PTP or the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), and 141 were activists, academics, or journalists. Most of those detained were held for up to seven days without charge as allowed under martial law, and some were isolated in military facilities. People who refused summons were subject to criminal punishment, and authorities put pressure on the families and associates of those they were seeking. Amnesty International also reported that some detainees were tortured with beatings, death threats, and mock executions, and forced to sign forms declaring that they had not been mistreated.

        The junta has not been at all consultive in the process of creating a new constitution:

        Wisanu Krue-ngarm, the Deputy Prime Minister, recommended establishing a body of constitution experts to help the government interpret the constitution before a conflict arises. On the electoral system, the NRC asked the CDC to eliminate the party list system and reduce the number of members of parliament. Moreover, Thais should separately elect MPs, the prime minister, and the cabinet. The CDC itself suggested that the constitution creates the Ethics Council to recruit “ethical persons” into public posts and establishes a new court to review public spending.

        These proposals would leave post-coup Thailand with a smaller legislative and a chaotic executive. Infighting within the cabinet would prevent the prime minister from creating the solidarity required to run the country. The government may collapse at any time under the constant threat from several independent auditing bodies. These bodies, the so-called fourth branch of power, will weaken the majority while empowering the minority because they act as a haven for the anti-democracy faction to control the country under the disguise of expertise and ethical conduct. Meanwhile, the heart of Thailand’s crisis is still being ignored. The CDC is oblivious to the fact that elected politicians are subject to a disproportionate amount of scrutiny from unelected officials who are subject to no accountability at all.

        The Yellow Shirt position was always that only ‘ethical persons’ should rule. Oddly enough only Yellow Shirts seem to be ethical persons and equally oddly the junta has appointed only Yellow Shirts to its various assemblies.

        It is a surprise to learn that the junta’s real purpose is the promotion of consultative government. They are the government right now. If they want consultative government they can institute it right now. There is no evidence at all that the military has any idea to get rid of coups. After all if they think juntas are a bad thing, all that’s needed is a quick trip to the palace to present their resignations.

        The Yellow Shirts, under various guises, have lost every election since 2001. The junta is in the process of enacting the Yellow Shirt programme, and that is reflected in all their appointments, including to the various allegedly legislative and constituent assemblies, all of which the junta can override at pleasure. There is simply no sign at all of any desire by the junta to make government work better in sense at all, let alone consultatively. Equally, the Yellow Shirts as a whole, including the junta, had absolutely no difficulty with the various unelected governments, including themselves, that have ruled in the period since 2001 not only without winning a majority of the total vote, but without even winning a plurality. The junta of course, has not even won a plurality.

        The Thai junta has many goals but I am not absolutely convinced that electoral reform is one of them.


      • Alan, you are quite right. The Yellow Shirts/Democrats/coup leaders have been consistently anti-democratic, and proposals of this nature have to be taken with a grain of salt. But it’s hard to see how holding an election, then holding a coup to stop the results of that election furthers the aims of the coup leaders. Were they trying to get the electorate to accept a Democrat government, surely it would make more sense to not launch coups (which I presume are unpopular for the Democrats), while if they were intending to keep power in the hands of the military, they would surely want to slow down the constitutional amendment process to a crawl.


      • What they appear to want is a state somewhat like Suharto-era Indonesia where the elite holds a permanent veto on social and economic policies and all political parties accept the elite’s vision of society and politics. Coup culture just doesn’t include a particularly coherent idea of Thailand’s future beyond a palace/military veto over elected governments.

        Why did Indonesia go through purely ritual elections from Suharto’s seizure of power until Reformasi? Why did Mexico continue holding ritual elections throughout the period of PRI dominance?


      • I kind of think that the Mexican/Suharto era elections are a bit different. They were strongly controlled to favour the ruling party, whereas if Thai elections have been controlled by the palace/junta it has been done extremely poorly. Whether this election will be the trial of a new, more active strategy on the part of the coup leaders is unclear, but there is little evidence to suggest that the election will be heavily rigged.


      • Except that the entire leadership of TRT/PT has been banned from running for parliament, a large number of Red Shirt organisations have been declared illegal, and the junta reserves the right to vet all candidates to ensure they are ‘ethical persons’.


      • I’m not sure about the vetting of candidates (if that is true, then the election looks unlikely to be democratic; the last post-coup election didn’t have that feature). However, while the banning of TRT/PT candidates and Yellow Shirt is far from ideal, it does not necessarily preclude the possibility of a Thaskinite government.


  2. This implies that Thailand should adopt something like the 18th century British constitution, where the governments kind of sort of had to have the support of Parliament, but the King could veto the inclusion in the Cabinet of politicians he disliked, and had considerable powers through bribery and influence to get the election results he wanted.


    • I added a link to the footnote to my old post proposing an open-list variant of MMP. As for the Bavarian system, it has some unusual features–I mean aside from the open lists. For one thing, seats are proportional to the sum of list-preference votes and nominal (district) votes. I suppose this does not necessarily rule it out of the MMP family, but I am unsure. It certainly makes district candidacies more valuable to the party for its overall seat-maximizing strategy than would be the case for “conventional” MMP wherein only list votes are used to determine proportional entitlements. (For purposes of the point just made, it does not matter whether “list votes” are cast on closed or open lists.)

      Whatever this might mean for how we classify the system, it is not what I had in mind when proposing my variant almost ten years ago.


  3. Ahem

    Shouldn’t Americans also be able to prevent people from going to vote, if they are worried that their side will lose the election?

    And why should the army in America remain loyal to the President? Shouldn’t it be able to support those who disrupt the election and then take power because the election was unworkable?

    The basic principles of Thai-style democracy have yet to take root in America. Election after election has delivered passive acceptance of majority rule. The rights of electoral saboteurs are casually dismissed.

    Foreign commentators need to be much more aware of the failings of American democracy.


  4. Pingback: Thailand’s new constitution and electoral system | Fruits and Votes

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