December 1, 2022
BANGKOK – Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday endorsed a Bill that amends the electoral system for Members of Parliament, effectively laying the framework for the general election that is due by May 2023.
The verdict not only gives the go-ahead for the changes to be implemented in the coming election, it also puts to rest months of fierce debate among lawmakers over the method that will be used to allocate party-list MP seats.
In the coming election, a dual-ballot system will be used, where the electorate will cast one vote for their district candidate and another for a political party for the party-list seats.
A total of 400 constituency seats are awarded to candidates who garner the most votes in each district, while 100 party-list seats are distributed based on a formula that takes into account a party’s national vote share. This makes up the 500 seats in Parliament’s Lower House.
A petition to the Court, backed by 105 MPs and senators, took issue with the Bill’s suggested formula to use the 100 party-list seats as a divisor to calculate the proportion of party-list votes needed to win one party-list seat, claiming that this will benefit bigger parties.
Taking the 35 million votes tallied in the 2019 General Election as an example, this method of calculation means that parties will need to garner at least 350,000 party-list votes to earn one party-list seat.
The group, led by Dr Rawee Maschamadol from the single-seat New Palang Dharma Party (NPDP), asked the Court to look into the legality of the Bill and whether it was lawfully adopted as it was a last-minute replacement for a similar proposal that fell through.
But the nine-judge Court ruled unanimously that the draft law is in line with the Constitution and did not contain any statement contrary to or inconsistent with the law.
Political scientist Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, said the proposed formula for allocating the 100 party-list seats poses an institutional disadvantage to smaller parties.
“Larger parties will benefit from this as they will likely meet the higher threshold required to win party-list seats,” said Dr Napon, noting that parties like opposition Pheu Thai have enough resources and candidates to contest in all constituencies, unlike smaller parties.
Small parties, including the NPDP, prefer another calculation method that uses the 500 Lower House seats as the divisor.
Applying this method to the 35 million votes in the 2019 election, parties would need 70,000 votes to earn one party-list seat – just a fifth of the votes required under the “100” formula, said Dr Napon.
Earlier this year, a majority of lawmakers agreed to the “500” formula of calculation. But this version of the Bill was dropped in August after a lack of quorums in Parliament sessions where it was scheduled to be discussed.
Lawmakers had to fall back on an earlier version of the Bill proposed by the Election Commission that introduced the “100” formula.
The Bill will now be sent to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who will present it for royal endorsement before it becomes law.
The Court’s decision on Wednesday will result in more political manoeuvring as parties adapt to the changes, said Dr Napon, adding that winning constituency seats will become a bigger focus for medium- and small-sized parties.
“You can expect more parties to start merging, or recruiting more candidates who are able to pull constituency votes. The focus will move away from winning party-list seats as those are harder to earn,” he said.
Political punters have been keeping a close eye on Mr Prayut, who on Wednesday appointed three new ministers to his Cabinet.
Speculation has been rife in recent weeks that he could leave the ruling Palang Pracharath Party to join the new Ruam Thai Sang Chart Party, purportedly set up as a vehicle for him to enter the next election.
Last week, the Prime Minister told local media that he was “still considering” the move.
How Thailand’s two-ballot system works:
– Voters will cast one ballot for a constituency representative, and a second ballot for a political party, also known as the party-list vote.
– The first-past-the-post method will determine the winners for the 400 constituency MP seats, meaning the candidate who gets the most votes in each district is elected. This is similar to Singapore’s electoral system.
– The second ballot determines how the 100 party-list MP seats are distributed among parties. Using the proportional representation system, the seats are distributed based on the parties’ vote share garnered nationwide.
– Results from both ballots will determine a party’s overall size in the Lower House of Parliament.
– In 2021, Thailand amended its electoral system to give voters two ballots instead of the single one used in the 2019 election.
– It also raised the number of constituency MP seats from 350 to 400, and reduced the number of party-list seats from 150 to 100.