On Thursday, in response to Minister Somsak’s warning about the viability of electoral reforms being put into practice, the Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul did not dismiss the concerns raised but suggested that he would win his seat as a constituency MP and that his party would work with whatever electoral system is being used. Mr Somsak had said that Mr Anutin’s party may be critical in finding a resolution to the present conundrum which has the potential to derail forthcoming elections if not clarified.
As the Thai government enters into its final months in office with an election due to be called in the next 6 months in any event, the basis for calculating the result of that poll has been thrown into doubt as electoral reform bills have yet to be finalised and enacted by parliament. It is a situation that could lead to a constitutional crisis. On Thursday, a senior cabinet minister raised questions about the vote in parliament on July 6th to change the formula for the allocation of party list seats in the forthcoming General Election. Minister of Justice, Somsak Thepsutin, said that the only solution may be to revert to the original proposal as agreed before the surprise vote and use a forum based on the number of party-list seats at 100 or to scrap the electoral reform process altogether.
With the Thai government in the middle of a particularly acrimonious and eventful censure debate in parliament which could trigger a General Election with the government only guaranteed 206 or 207 votes and the renegade ex-minister Captain Thamanat Prompow promising to lead his Setthakij Thai Party (Thai Economic Party) to vote against the Prime Minister in the up and coming vote, there are mounting concerns about the laws and legal provisions being put in place to undertake the elections not least whether the laws will be finalised by parliament in time and future constitutional court challenges.
Although most observers believe the government will not fall this month, there is some doubt in the air with the tenor of the debate particularly bitter, underscoring political divisions.
The opposition has been bolder, driven by opinion polls that consistently show the government to be unpopular.
Cabinet minister Somsak Thepsutin raises doubts about the calculation formula for party-list seats
With an election due to be held before March next year, fears about the country’s proposed election grew on Thursday when a senior government minister raised the alarm.
The country’s ability to go to the polls in the short term is open to question as it has emerged that a shock decision by parliament on July 6th last to change the calculation system for list MPs from the reforms agreed on a bi-partisan basis late last year, may not be viable given the changes both to the constitution that have taken place and the proposed changes to the country’s electoral system since 10 different bills were passed by parliament at the end of last year, provisions which are still making their way through the parliamentary process.
The new laws which passed their first reading in September 2021, and are currently finishing a committee process, re-introduced a dual ballot system and changed the number of constituency seats from 350 in 2019 to 400 while reducing the number of party list seats from 150 to 100.
Proposed new election law had a formula to create a quota for party-list seats by dividing the national poll by 100 being the number of seats to be filled
The proposed new laws had specified a specific calculation formula for party-list seats of simply taking the number of party votes nationally and dividing the figure by 100 to allocate the number of seats to each party.
This formula would have benefited Pheu Thai as it would make it quite likely, given the current level of popular support, to gain a large number of party list seats, the same number pro rata to its overall vote across the country.
The proposal to divide the number by 500 to derive the minimum number of seats a party should get when used in the last election and at the same time with just one ballot, saw the Pheu Thai Party gain zero party list seats in 2019, becoming in effect, a victim of its success in the battle for constituency seats while the Future Forward Party, the forerunner of the progressive Move Forward Party in parliament gained the most party list seats.
Reversal of policy in early July came with the approval of government and was voted through decisively
On July 6th, in a severe reversal of policy and a shock move, MPs and legislators aligned with the coalition government with the approval of key cabinet members, gave the green light for MPs to reverse the plan to use the more straightforward calculation formula based on 100.
They voted by 392 to 160 in a combined sitting of the legislature with 23 abstentions to support the formula to use 500.
The reversal of policy came in the face of repeated denials from senior sources in the government and leading coalition parties before the vote.
It was described by the parliamentary leader of the Pheu Thai Party, Dr Cholnan Srikaew, as an unconstitutional move given the changes that had already been agreed upon.
Cholnan said the proposed use of the 500 formula would violate Section 91 of the constitution which had been amended to support the new election proposals including the dual ballot system.
He pointed to consistent agreement on the proposal before the House steering committee on the laws being processed through parliament.
He cited rumours circulating in parliament that such an about turn would be made as having been verified by the vote which he described as a desperate bid by an unpopular government to cling to power.
‘An act of parliamentary dictatorship’
His views were echoed by Nipit Intarasombut of the new Sang Anakot Thai (Building Thailand’s Future) Party, formerly a Democrat Party MP who described the surprise vote as ‘an act of parliamentary dictatorship’.
At the beginning of the year, Deputy Prime Minister Mr Wissanu warned of a nightmare scenario if the bills, as proposed last year, were not fully processed through parliament before an election is called.
At the time, Mr Wissanu warned of the danger of the country being plunged into a serious constitutional crisis as the basis of holding viable elections may become muddled.
The murky nature of the situation can be seen in a poll published last week and published on Sunday, July 17th in the Bangkok Post.
Over 83% of the Thai public know little or nothing about the voting system for party list seats, a decisive factor that could swing the next election
The poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) showed that a full 62.35% of the Thai public had no idea how the voting system for the next election and the party list system worked in practice with a further 21.1% saying they had only a little understanding of the voting process or the basis for democracy in Thailand.
Less than 5% of the public or only 4.8% told interviewers that they understood the process.
The murkiness of the situation and indeed the danger can be seen in a paper just released by veteran Thai politician and the Minister of Justice in the current government, Somsak Thepsutin, which argues that the vote on July 6th to use a party list calculation method of dividing by 500 rather than 100 is not viable under the current situation.
Minister says that the proposal to use a calculation mode based on 500 is contradictory and unworkable
On Thursday, Minister Somsak told reporters that he had discussed the situation with other MPs and parties and parliament and believed that there was a problem in using the calculation formula voted through on July 6th to divide the party list of national votes from the second ballot by 500.
He said that such a plan contradicted other provisions in the bills voted through parliament and which were agreed to as part of the electoral reform process before this controversial vote including the agreement of the parliamentary steering committee to pursue the plan to use a division of 100 which corresponds to the number of party lists seats which under the new plan agreed will be voted for separately, on a second ballot paper, unlike in 2019 when only one ballot was used.
Minister Somsak gave an example of the Bhumjaithai Party attaining 5 million votes in the next election but winning 50 constituency seats, then, he said, it would not gain party list MPs.
In other words, the more constituencies a party wins, the fewer party list seats it will obtain.
Two options, use the 100 formula or cancel the electoral reform process, a situation that may well lead to Constitutional Court challenges or a crisis
He suggested that the answer to this would be to use the 100 calculation format which matched the number of party list seats available meaning a quota would be established for a seat by dividing the total number of votes cast by 100 and then seeing how many quotas each party wins based on its national party list vote on the second ballot paper.
The alternative to this, said Mr Somsak, would be to cancel the entire process of electoral and constitutional reform in parliament although it is not quite clear if this is possible and in addition, it is certain to be a matter to be brought before the Constitutional Court, although Mr Somsak indicated it is an available option, at this point, to parliament and the government.
The senior minister has reportedly produced a working paper on the conundrum and has particularly urged the Bhumjaithai Party to address the crisis suggesting it has significant influence over the matter at this time.
Poll supports retention of the one ballot election process which would torpedo Pheu Thai landslide hopes
Since the end of March this year, when the steering committee responsible for the election bills voted not to allow synchronised numbering of candidates and parties, something that would have benefited the country’s leading Pheu Thai Party, there have been doubts expressed about the intentions of the coalition concerning the new voting legislation which, at that time, even Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam accepted opened the way for a Pheu Thai Party landslide.
Opposition rising in Thailand, its prospects of winning control of the government were elevated by the electoral reform bills as originally agreed
Despite opinion polls and election results themselves particularly in Bangkok throughout the year showing stronger support for the opposition and in particular the Pheu Thai Party, a poll conducted at the end of March showed also a strong public preference for preserving the role of smaller parties even though the poll also showed clear approval for amending the voting laws.
Questioned by reporters at parliament on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul appear to indicate that there was some substance in what Mr Somsak, his cabinet colleague, was saying although he told reporters that whatever the electoral method was used, his party was committed to pursuing its course and putting its stall before the public.
Currently, the Bhumjaithai Party has only just 2.65% support in the latest quarterly National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) poll.
Mr Anutin admitted that the current arrangement may not see him elected as a party list MP but insisted he would be elected as a constituency MP while also accepting that he was not clear on how the formula, voted for on July 6th, would work.