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Electoral change lights fuse for political explosion in Thai Parliament and government

An early general election has become more likely after Parliament voted on Friday (September 10) to approve a charter amendment bill that restores the two-ballot election system and alters the House of Representatives composition – changes expected to benefit larger parties in the next national vote.

However, the bill may need to clear another hurdle before being implemented. Parliamentarians can ask the Constitutional Court whether the amendment or subsequent rewriting of the relevant organic law violates the charter.

The amendment bill, proposed by the coalition Democrat Party, seeks to revive the two-ballot election system used under the 1997 Constitution and to change the number of constituency MPs and party-list MPs in the 500-member Lower House to 400 and 100, respectively.

At the previous general election in 2019 – the first held under the current post-coup Constitution of 2017 – each voter cast a single ballot for both 350 constituency MPs and 150 party-list MPs.

Tough requirements met

Despite stringent vote requirements designed to protect against amendments, the draft managed to sail through a joint session of the Senate and Lower House – with 472 votes for and 33 against. Abstentions totaled 187.

The vote result met all the requirements set by the charter, namely majority support from both Houses, with a minimum 20 percent of opposition MPs, and at least one-third of senators. That was mainly thanks to strong support from the two largest political parties, Palang Pracharath, and Pheu Thai, as well as most senators, who were appointed by the current powers-that-be when they led the post-coup junta.

This was the first of 20 amendment bills proposed over the past two years of this Parliament’s existence to clear all the three parliamentary readings. Most of the other 19 were shot down after failing to gain backing from one-third of the Senate.

The bill will be submitted for Royal endorsement in the next 20 days. Support from at least 10 per cent of Parliament is required to seek a Constitutional Court ruling on whether the amendment breaches the charter.

To accommodate the dual-ballot method, the organic law on elections will need to be rewritten. The rewrite is expected in November when Parliament reconvenes.

However, some observers said the final amendment is unlawful because it exceeds the terms of the original motion. Lawyer Pirapan Saenpan last week complained to the National Anti-Corruption Commission, accusing the scrutinizing committee of malfeasance for revising the original motion.

Legal dispute ahead

Despite gaining Parliament’s approval, the charter amendment could still be halted by legal hurdles before being implemented.

Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said it could face a review by the Constitution Court after being promulgated. He pointed to a conflict between the amendment bill and Article 93 of the Constitution, which enshrines the complex method for calculating party-list MPs based on the current single-ballot and mixed-member apportionment (MMA) system.

He noted that while the amendment bill adopts two ballots, the single-ballot method of allocating MP seats to contesting political parties has been left intact.

And Yuthaporn mentioned another potential barrier. If the House is dissolved before the new election law is enacted, a legal question may arise over whether one or two ballots should be used in the subsequent general election.

The House panel scrutinizing the bill initially added a transitional clause authorizing the Election Commission to issue regulations for a new election in case the organic bill was not completed in time. But the panel removed the clause following criticism that it offered the EC a “blank cheque”.

“We have to keep our fingers crossed that House dissolution won’t be called before the law takes effect,” said Yuthaporn.

Winners and losers

The dual-ballot system is expected to benefit larger parties, especially the main opposition Pheu Thai and the ruling Palang Pracharath, while leaving small and medium-sized parties at a disadvantage.

Pheu Thai’s deputy leader Yuttapong Charasathien said he was confident the return of the two-ballot system would see his party win more than 200 seats out of the 500 up for grabs in the next election. “And we will gain the legitimacy to form a new government,” he added.

One question is why has the ruling party supported a change that is expected to benefit Pheu Thai the most.

Pheu Thai, which is recognized as the proxy party of self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has won all previous elections held with two ballots.

Yuthaporn said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his brothers in arms — Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan and Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda, forming the “3Ps” group of former Army chiefs — may think they will still benefit from other provisions in the Constitution.

He pointed out that the political structure remains largely unchanged and the junta-appointed Senate still enjoys the power to select the next prime minister.

“Even if it wins the next election, Pheu Thai won’t be able to form the government. On the contrary, Palang Pracharath has a better chance of returning to power even if it comes second in the election,” said the academic.

Palang Pracharath’s reason for backing the old two-ballot system may be to diminish small and medium parties – especially Move Forward, which came third in its 2019 electoral debut under the current election system, he added.

House dissolution

Yuthaporn reckoned that after the organic law passes, the House will likely be dissolved and a new election called. He reasoned that Prayut, with his legitimacy increasingly being questioned and street protests rising, has realized that restoring the economy post-COVID will take a long time.

Meanwhile, some critics warn that the two-ballot system could bring a return to “parliamentary dictatorship”, where the House of Representatives is dominated by MPs from a few large parties.

Unlike the single-ballot system, in which “every vote counts”, the dual-ballot system is a winner-takes-all method where votes for losing candidates count for nothing. As a result, it threatens small parties with annihilation.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service

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