In the first general elections since last year’s coup, Thai voters and the revised electoral system have given the party of ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra a plurality of parliamentary seats. The People Power Party (PPP) is likely to be able to woo enough of the many smaller parties to form a majority, as it is only about 12 seats (out of 480) short of a majority. The Democrats are the biggest opposition party, with 165 seats, and have stated their willingness to form a coalition in the (unlikely) event that PPP fails.
The pre-coup electoral system, adopted in 1997, was mixed-member majoritarian (parallel) in its most straightforward design: a nominal tier of only single-seat districts (plurality rule) and a list tier that was nationwide (and closed list). The list tier comprised 20% of the total 500 seats. It had been engineered with the intent of consigning to history Thailand’s weakly organized parties and fragmented multiparty system with shortlived coalitions. Mission accomplished–too well. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai ((TRT, which means Thais Love Thais, in what has to be one of the worst-named major political parties of all time. It was banned by the military, so Thaksin’s allies banded together in the new People Power Party. Thaksin himself is in exile, but has vowed to return.)) party emerged as dominant–initially just missing a manufactured majority ((248 seats on 40.6% of list votes in 2001.)) and then with an “earned” majority but overwhelmingly over-represented by the MMM system. ((377 seats on 56.4% of list votes in 2005.))
The military-initiated constitutional re-engineering project resulted in a revised electoral system that is still MMM, but in a way that is potentially less majoritarian in the nominal tier yet more so in the list tier. Now the list tier is only around 17% of the total (80 of 480) and regionalized rather than a single national district. These 80 list seats are elected in eight districts or “zones,” each comprising from 9 to 15 provinces. The “zone magnitude” is in all cases 10 seats. Lists remain closed. The much lower magnitudes mean that there are fewer “safe” seats on the lists and, obviously, fewer deputies elected far down their list in “invisible” ranks. In most list districts, the PPP and Democrats each won 3 to 5 seats. Only in two cases did one of the parties win more than five. ((In zone 8 (Bangkok), the Democrats won 8; in zone 3, the PPP won 7.)) This is quite a contrast from 2001, when 48 TRT candidates and 31 Democrats were elected from their respective party’s single national list.
The nominal tier now consists mostly of 2- and 3-seat districts, using what I would call MNTV–votes are both multiple and nontransferable. Prior to 1997, all seats were elected by MNTV, and given the personalization and factionalization of Thai parties, few districts were won by partisan sweeps. (In other words, most voters either did not use all their multiple votes, or did not cast all for candidates of the same party). There are also some single-seat districts.
In preliminary results posted at The Nation (a leading Thai newspaper), the seat-winning parties’ votes and seats in each tier are as follows.
First, the list votes percentage, seats, seat percentage, and advantage ratio (%/s/%v). These are listed in descending order of list votes won.
Dem, 39.63, 33, 41.3, 1.04
PPP, 39.60, 34, 42.5, 1.07
Pua Paendin, 5.6, 7, 8.8, 1.57
Chatthai, 4.4, 4, 5.0, 1.15
RJTCP ((Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana Party)), 2.7, 1, 1.3, 0.47
Pracharaj, 2.1, 1, 1.3, 0.59
Now for the nominal tier, listed in descending order of seats won.
PPP, 36.6, 198, 49.5, 1.35
Dem, 30.3, 132, 33.0, 1.09
Chattai, 9.2, 33, 8.3, 0.93
Pua Paendin, 9.2, 18, 4.5, 0.49
RJTCP, 4.7, 8, 2.0, 0.42
MT ((Matchima Thipataya Party)), 5.4, 7, 1.8, 0.33
Pracharaj, 2.3, 4, 1.0, 0.44
s-nom s-list total …Party
198+ 34 =232 …People Power Party
132+ 33 =165 …Democrat Party
018+ 07 =025 …Pua Paendin
033+ 04 =037 …Chatthai Party
007+ 00 =007 …Matchima Thipataya Party
008+ 01 =009 …Ruam Jai Thai Chat Pattana Party
004+ 01 =005 …Pracharaj Party
Note that if the military wanted an electoral system to favor the party it had recently ousted, it did it a pretty good job! The PPP has won 48.3% of the seats, despite being very narrowly only the second choice of Thai voters on the party list. The PPP and Democrats roughly tied with 39.6% and the PPP won only 36.6% of the nominal votes. That is an overall advantage ratio for the PPP of 1.22, based on list votes, and 1.32 if we want to use the nominal votes in our denominator of overall advantage.
The Democrats won one less seat in the list tier than the PPP did, despite having more list votes. The reason, of course, is the regionalization of the list tier. But, of course, it was the nominal tier that benefited the PPP.
The Pua Paendin also was significantly advantaged in the list tier, with 8.8% of seats despite only 5.6% of list votes. Nowhere did it place higher than third in votes; however, it won one seat in each of seven list districts.
One might conclude that if the military had wanted to boost the anti-Thaksin forces, it might have found a way to use list-only allocation. The Democrats obviously have a stronger party label than they have candidates or regional machine, with a list vote equal to that of the PPP and +9.3 compared to its nominal vote. What surprises me somewhat is that the PPP does not show evidence of strong candidates and nominal-vote delivering capacity, as it, too, has a list vote greater than its nominal vote (+3.0). Its advantage comes from the mechanical effect of the majoritarian nominal tier at least as much as it comes from from a strong nominal vote (which, at 36%, is hardly impressive, even if it was the plurality by a six percentage-point margin).
The smaller Chatthai is evidently a party dependent on its regional candidates, with its list vote -4.8 compared to its nominal vote, or less than half.
I certainly do not have the time to go through all the nominal-tier results, but it is clear that votes in this tier remain significantly personal rather than partisan. Many of the districts that I looked at (a small and not necessarily representative sample) were not clean sweeps by one party, notwithstanding an electoral system that would allow a party to win all the seats if it were the plurality party and its voters cast their full allotment of votes for the party’s candidates.
In Bangkok there were many sweeps, but only because the Democrats are quite dominant there. Bangkok has twelve 3-seat districts. In seven of these, the Democratic candidates won all three, in one the PPP did, and there were four districts with 2-1 splits (two favoring each party).
One of the Bangkok splits shows the impact of personal and party votes under MNTV quite well. In Bangkok 6, the PPP had three candidates with individual votes ranging from 84,844 to 86,641 (average 86,042). Not much difference, suggesting they were mostly party votes. The three combined for 258,126 votes. The Democrats, on the other hand, had three candidates ranging from 84,653 to 92,386 (averaging 87,530) and summing to 262,591. So, the Democrats had a plurality of votes cast in this district, but won only one seat against a PPP competition that had more even candidate vote totals. That leading Democrat vote was sufficient to win the party the first seat in the district, and the party missed the third seat by only 726 votes.
Another example, from outside Bangkok, is Kanchanaburi 2, in the Central region. There the leading candidate obviously had a strong personal vote. A Democrat, this candidate won over 74,000 votes and the first seat. The PPP won the second seat with around 58,000 votes. Then the first runner-up was another Democrat, with just over 53,000 votes, followed by the second PPP candidate, who had only around 41,000 votes. This kind of result can happen only if many voters split their two votes between the popular candidates of the two parties, or voted for just their one favorite. In either case, the personal votes obviously are determining the result. In this district, other parties that trailed farther behind likewise ran two candidates, and tended to have very small differences between the votes of their two, suggesting a party vote (i.e. their voters gave both their votes to the party’s candidates).
The electoral system promotes a personal vote, and these personal votes made the difference in specific races. However, one would need to do this analysis systematically to determine the degree to which the personal votes in MNTV affected the aggregate result. As I noted above, both parties had a total share of nominal votes that lagged behind their party votes, though this lag was more than three times as great for the Democrats as for People Power. The breakdown of nominal and list votes suggest that the Democrats would be in a strong position in coalition negotiations if the list vote predominated in seat allocation. However, because the nominal vote so predominates, the first post-coup government likely will be more similar to the pre-coup one than the military coup-makers presumably had hoped.