Countdown to radical electoral change

Countdown to radical electoral change

An almost totally new election system will be brought into play at the next polls, with likely controversy and confusion.

With national elections widely expected to take place in November, the countdown has begun for a vote that will put to the test a new and controversial electoral system put forward by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC).

The National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has yet to pass the organic bill governing the elections, which stipulates 500 MPs, with 350 to be drawn from constituencies and 150 from party lists.

The two other organic laws required, on the Election Commission (EC) and political parties, have already been passed. The organic bill on the selection of senators is also being vetted by the NLA.

However, smooth passage for the legislation is widely anticipated. This means the national polls are likely to proceed under the proportional representation system where the constituency vote is used to determine the total number of seats which parties receive, and single-ballot voting is adopted.

A key element is that the ballots cast for losing constituency candidates will not be discarded as they were in elections of the past; they are to be redistributed and used in allocating seats. Party-list MPs from each party will fill in the seats according to the total votes which a party gets.

The Bangkok Post has spoken to CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan and outgoing member of the EC Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, who have different expectations about the changes likely to unfold.

Government stability

Many critics say major parties are unlikely to be able to form a single-party majority government, meaning they would not be able to govern alone.

A coalition of parties would be required to form a government, which critics see as lacking political stability.

As the chief charter drafter, Mr Meechai is adamant the new system will not weaken an elected government, saying it is impossible to design a system to deliver a desired election outcome in all cases because voter behaviour is unpredictable.

“They [some politicians] see it as an attempt to clip their wings and give political leverage to a certain group. The truth is the new system will benefit all popular political parties,” he said.

The new election system was created to more accurately reflect the voters’ voice and encourage them to focus more on individual candidates than parties. This will force parties to pick the best candidates to stand in elections.

He was referring to the proposed scrapping of a voting practice in which candidates and the parties they stand for share the same ballot number nationwide.

The ballot number of constituency candidates will, instead, be determined on a first-come, first-served basis in each constituency.

“I don’t see how it can confuse voters. They don’t have to remember the candidate’s number until election day. They may just know the face and then they can check for the ballot number in front of the polling station,” he said.

Mr Somchai, one of the biggest critics of the proposed election-related organic laws, on the other hand, said some of these rules are unnecessarily complicated including the change to ballot numbers assigned to constituency candidates.

“The different numbers will add a burden to the process including the printing of ballot papers and the vote count, and it is just for people to focus on the candidates, not the parties,” he said.

According to Mr Somchai, voters do not blindly vote for parties and candidates did play a key role in previous elections.

Effect on parties

Mr Somchai predicted a mess as political parties race towards deadline to meet requirements imposed by the organic law on political parties.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has not lifted the announcements barring political gatherings and political activities pending the passage of the organic bills on MP elections.

In his opinion, only parties with good management and sound financial support will be able to comply and get things done in time while smaller parties are unlikely to meet the deadline and may have to throw in the towel.

The outgoing election commissioner said elements in the organic law on political parties need to be factored in when discussing the coming elections.

In his opinion, while the new regulations under the law involving the elections of MPs tend to favour medium-sized and small parties, the political party law apparently does not.

Several requirements in the party law including the primary vote, start-up funds, and the setting-up of party branches are obstacles, not benefits, to medium-sized and small parties.

Small parties will be wiped out while medium-sized parties will operate with limitations, he said.

“There are two layers of screening. The political party law is the first, removing small- to medium-sized parties from the picture. The election law will finish the job,” he said.

After the general election, he expects six parties to emerge in the House of Representatives and no party will win enough seats to form a single-party government.

Mr Somchai disagreed with the theory floated by some political analysts that in the next poll medium-sized parties will have bargaining power and get to pick which major party to form a coalition government with. He believed a major political party is likely to choose coalition partners to rule with, not vice versa.

Power of ‘No’ votes

Mr Meechai is proud of the new rules which treat spoiled votes, better known as “no” votes, with respect. Voters can cross the “no” vote box if they would rather not vote for any of the candidates.

In the previous system, these votes were discarded, regardless of the number. This time round, constituency MP candidates are required to win more votes than the total number of “no” votes to qualify for a House seat. The candidates who lose to spoiled votes are disqualified from the contest.

Mr Meechai expected the “no” vote ballots to unleash voter power if political parties fail to screen candidates properly and field those unworthy of votes. He pointed out that people who are not satisfied with the candidates on offer do not have to block polling stations as a way to boycott the elections.

He was apparently referring to a series of chaotic incidents which took place during the Feb 2, 2014 snap polls which forced the elections to be declared void by the Constitutional Court.

“If the constituents vote ‘no’ to shun all of the candidates in that constituency, then those candidates are disqualified and they can’t reapply. It’s legal and more effective than blocking polling stations,” Mr Meechai added.

Reforms await

According to Mr Meechai, national reform plans should start falling into place this year, in around March or April, to be followed by a 20-year national strategic plan that a new elected government will have to adhere to.

Local polls

The EC member also addressed speculation that local polls would be held with two purposes, one to test the EC’s readiness to organise elections, and the other to see which way voters are likely to go in a general election.

He said even if the result of local polls may point to certain political trends, there would not be enough time for those in power to do anything because the timing will be rushed.

“And it’s wrong to think the result of local polls will tell you about the general election. In local politics, alliances are ready to shift any time,” he said, saying local and national polls have different dynamics.

November target

Mr Meechai said the much-anticipated general election should go ahead as planned in November. But if it is delayed for any reason, it should take place in early 2019, he added.

Mr Somchai agrees. Based on the political road-map, the NLA has two months to scrutinise the organic bill on the election of MPs and there is a 30-day period for the parties concerned to sort out their differences after its passage.

Provided the bill is passed, it would be forwarded for royal endorsement, which could take up to 90 days before the bill is royally endorsed and promulgated.

A general election must take place within 150 days of that.