Thailand’s new electoral system, which will be used in the next general elections, will yield more freedom of choice for voters. It will, however, put smaller parties at a disadvantage.
In Thailand, obsession over the rules of the game looms large as the next general election approaches. Constitutional amendments introduced in 2021 increased the number of single-member constituency seats using first-past-the-post voting system from 350 to 400, reduced the number of party-list seats using proportional representation system from 150 to 100, and reintroduced a system in which each voter will cast two ballots — one for a constituency candidate and one for a political party. Recent months have seen Thai lawmakers going back and forth on an election bill that will, in effect, determine whether the mixed electoral system will lean closer to majoritarian or proportional representation.
There are two variants of the two-ballot system. One adopts “100” as the basis for allocating party-list seats to ensure that party-list seats awarded to each party is proportional to that party’s share of party-list votes. The other adopts “500” as the basis for allocating party-list seats to ensure that each party’s overall share of MP seats is proportional to that party’s share of party-list votes.
A key difference between the “100” and “500” system is that in the latter, a party which has won a certain number of constituency seats beyond the calculated quota will not be granted any party-list seats. This is different from the “100” formula which awards party-list seats as a bonus on top regardless of how many constituency seats a party has already won. The “100” formula is expected to benefit large parties such as Phuea Thai, who in the 2019 general election failed to gain a single party-list seat due to a mechanism used for allocating party-list seats similar to the one specified in the “500” formula.
Parliament’s failure in August to finalise the revision of a bill that specified the “500” formula before a 180-day deadline prompted a return to the original draft, adopting “100” as the divisor for determining the number of party-list seats. This has caused at least one newly formed party to settle for an informal merger with another, indicating how critical this issue can be for parties that count on reaping the advantages that different systems provide.
In the end, squabbles over electoral rules reflect largely non-ideological struggles to cement certain institutional advantages in a highly uncertain political environment.
What will all this toing and fro-ing mean for voters, the largest stakeholders in the electoral game? What can voters expect from the new system for electing their representatives? For one, the replacement of a single-ballot system with a two-ballot system will give voters greater freedom of choice. Previously, voters cast one ballot that functioned as both a vote for a candidate and a vote for that candidate’s party. Without the option to split the vote, if a voter happened to prefer a candidate but not that candidate’s party, or vice versa, there was nothing she or he could do to vote in a way that reflected those preferences. A two-ballot system resolves this issue by enabling voters to break down their vote into two parts to be used for two distinct purposes if they so choose.
This separation also encourages voters to see their party-list vote as distinct from their vote for a local representative. If anything, they are likely to perceive party-list voting as voting for a prime ministerial candidate, for which parties may propose up to three names. To the extent that party-list votes reflect the national popularity of prime ministerial candidates rather than the strength of local personalities and networks, the use of a two-ballot system should foster a more direct connection, and clearer relations of accountability, between voters and those they support as candidates for prime minister.
The new system is, however, expected to introduce some degree of distortion in parliamentary representation. Reducing the number of party-list seats, raising the threshold of votes required to win such seats, and separating the allocation of party-list seats from the allocation of constituency seats will enable larger parties to win higher proportions of seats than of votes. This puts smaller parties, and their supporters, at an institutional disadvantage, leading to a smaller number of parties contesting elections and also parties represented in Parliament.
Although this outcome could significantly narrow the points of view reflected in Parliament, an election with fewer parties will reduce choice fatigue among voters. As voters become better at differentiating among the contending parties on the basis of platforms, policies and ideologies, this should also serve to dampen the salience of electoral handouts as a determinant of voting decisions. More importantly, the system is expected to produce a more cohesive, possibly single-party government sustained not with cash-infused bargaining with coalition partners but with more effective control over its MPs. This would be a welcome change, considering that the previous electoral system produced a governing coalition with the largest number of parties in history.
In brief, the system that voters will encounter in Thailand’s next national elections will be flexible, direct, and responsive but not necessarily representative of the diverse wants and needs of the electorate. This may be what is needed to produce a change in government and to overrule the appointed members of the Senate, whose powers to elect the prime minister remain despite ongoing challenges from the opposition. But make no mistake: changing the electoral system is low-hanging fruit, considering that, just a year ago, Thai youths were calling for reform of the monarchy. Their grievances failed to translate into legislative or constitutional change while, in marked contrast, politicians’ frustrations with the technicalities of elections succeeded.
In the end, squabbles over electoral rules reflect largely non-ideological struggles to cement certain institutional advantages in a highly uncertain political environment. They are no more than desperate attempts by parties and politicians to build sandcastles amidst ever-shifting political tides whose ebbs and flows track more closely to the rhythms of influential dealmakers, judicial intervention, party financiers, and extraconstitutional forces than the sentiments of the general public. As Joseph Schumpeter cautioned in his 1943 work Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, elections are not a method for producing a general will that brings forth a government by the people. They are first and foremost, and always been, instruments of elite competition.
Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.