Thailand’s March general election was the first poll since the country’s military deposed the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. And there are now fears that the ruling junta will manipulate the country’s complex electoral code to achieve its own desired result.
Given the significant deterioration of domestic freedoms since the Thai military staged a coup d'état in 2014 and dissolved the elected government, there were low expectations for the election which took place, after considerable delay, on March 24.
And so the fact that the opposition Pheu Thai (PT) party, affiliated with Thailand’s exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2014, won the most number of seats – despite losing the popular vote to the military-backed Palang Pracharat (PP) party – came as a surprise. Thailand was further shocked when an anti-military coalition of six parties led by the PT announced it would form a coalition government.
The campaign, which kicked off in December 2018, was marked by fears that the junta, led by retired general Prayut Chan-o-cha, would rig the vote to ensure it maintained control of parliament. The military-backed party, Palang Pracharat (PP), which gained a total of 118 (of 500) seats but won more national votes than the PT, also announced that it should have the right to form the government.
Now all eyes are on the official result of the election, scheduled to be announced on May 9, after the coronation of the new king Rama X Vajiralongkorn earlier in the month. There are fears that the junta will influence that result by manipulating the complex mathematics involved in allocating seats in the lower house of parliament.
The 2017 constitution set up a bicameral parliament with 250 seats in the senate, or upper house, and 500 seats in the house of representatives, or lower house. The military already controls the senate, so the national election was for the lower house where 350 constituency seats are elected through the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, and 150 are filled through a closed party list.
The FPTP part is relatively straightforward, as there are 350 electoral constituencies in Thailand, and the candidate who wins the most votes in each one takes that seat. The method by which the 150 party-list seats are allocated, however, is considerably more confusing.
Thailand’s electoral system is a type of mixed member proportional representation system but with only one ballot. Thus, unlike other mixed member proportional representation systems, such as the one used in German Bundestag elections – where people have two ballots, one for an individual and the other for a party – the Thai system only gives people one choice.
This means that a voter can only vote for a specific party if there is a candidate from that party standing for election in the voter’s constituency area. So if a party does not send a representative to a constituency area, then that party cannot get any party-list votes.
This is problematic for smaller parties, which, due to budget constraints, can stand for only a few constituency areas. In PT’s case, its candidates stood for 250 of the 350 constituency areas because these are the ones that it believed it could win. For the remaining 100 constituency areas, its original plan was to use an allied party, Thai Raksa Chart (TRC).
But this plan was foiled after the TRC was banned when it nominated a royal princess as its prime ministerial candidate. The election commission chose to disqualify her on the basis that the royal family should not be involved in politics, and then banned the party from contesting the election.
Most voters in constituencies where PT did not nominate representatives, and who would otherwise have voted for the TRC, transferred their votes to the Future Forward Party (FFP) in the election, which unexpectedly became the third-biggest party and took a large share of the party-list seats.
The maths bit
To calculate how the 150 party-list seats are allocated requires substantial mathematical skill – which is actually the whole point. By making it complex and opaque, the ruling junta has made the system incomprehensible to most voters.
It is based on a concept of expected number of representatives (ENR), which refers to the theoretical number a party should get in the 500-seat lower house as a proportion of the total number of countable ballots (TNCB) nationwide. And yes, that is as complex as it sounds.
The ENR of a party is based on three components: the total number of votes a party gets (TNVP), the total number of countable ballots (TNCB), and the total number of seats in the lower house (500), using the formula ENR = TNVP x 500/TNCB. After the ENR is calculated, whether a party gets any seats on the party-list depends on the ratio between the ENR and the actual number of constituency seats a party has already got. So, if a party’s number of constituency seats exceeds the ENR, then that party cannot get any more party-list ones.
In PT’s case, the party has already won 137 constituency seats, but its ENR is only about 111 (PT won a total of 7,920,630 votes, and the total number countable ballots is around 35.5m). Thus, only those parties whose number of constituency seats is less than the ENR would be eligible for allocation of the party-list seats – and even the final distribution of those is highly complex.
Smoke and mirrors
But all this complexity works in the ruling junta’s favour. It would be a daunting challenge for the public to understand the intricacies of how their votes were counted, which would then reduce the accountability of the leadership.
It also seems the system has succeeded in fragmenting the political party status quo in Thailand. So far, at least 16 political parties appear to have won at least one seat in the parliament, which is a bad omen of future instability.
The opposition PT has announced that it has amassed around 255 votes from seven parties to form a coalition. But even if such a coalition government is formed, how effective it will be is any one’s guess.
Similarly, if the military’s allies manage to form the government, it will unlikely be any more stable, largely due to the relatively low number of lower-house seats the PP has won.
More importantly, the Thai prime minister must also be nominated by both the senate and the house of representatives combined. And given the military already controls 250 seats in the senate, it seems unlikely that PT will succeed in getting its candidate through.
Chaos, it seems, awaits.
The authors would like to thank Dr. Pitch Pongsawat of Chulalongkorn University for his patient explanation of the history of the Thai electoral system.