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Turbulent Thailand

Thai ruling party irks progressives with electoral tweaks

Constitutional changes seen giving major parties a big push

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha: The first general election under Thailand's new electoral system must be held by March 2023 at the latest.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Voters in Thailand's next general election will cast two ballots, one for a lower house candidate and another for their preferred political party, in the wake of constitutional amendments that alter the electoral system. The changes are likely to favor large political parties while working against smaller parties, including a progressive party that emerged in the 2019 general elections.

The new system will reserve 400 lower house seats for constituency winners, up from 350 under the current system. Another 100 lawmakers -- down from 150 at present -- will be chosen by proportional representation from party lists. Currently, votes in a constituency are allocated proportionally to parties to which candidates belong. Under the revised system, voters will cast two ballots: one for a parliament candidate and another for a party.

Passage of the amendments on their third reading in parliament on Friday was the final hurdle. The amendments, which were first proposed by the ruling Palang Pracharat Party, will be forwarded to King Vajiralongkorn for formal endorsement. Changes proposed by the opposition were voted down in earlier readings.

The first general election under the new system must be held by March 2023 at the latest. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha may, however, call a snap election before then.

In a joint parliamentary session Friday to vote on the amendments, 323 lower house members and 149 senators voted in favor of the changes, fulfilling the requirement that at least one-third of senators and 20% of opposition members must support any constitutional amendment. There were 127 abstentions in the lower house and 66 in the Senate. Thirty-three lawmakers in total voted no.

The vote tallies reflected likely winners and losers under the new electoral arrangement. The ruling Palang Pracharat Party and the opposition Pheu Thai Party, the two largest parties in Thailand, voted in favor of the changes. Palang Pracharat is supported by the establishment across the country. Pheu Thai was formed by allies of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and has a strong base in northern and northeastern Thailand, where many farmers live.

It has not been decided where the 50 new constituencies will be added, but the two parties' strong political bases gave them reason to believe they will gain seats under the new system. There is a possibility of gerrymandering as well.

Senators' votes were split. Most incumbent senators were hand-picked by a committee chaired by Deputy Prime Minister and Palang Pracharat leader Prawit Wongsuwon when he was part of the junta that ruled Thailand between 2014 and 2019. These senators tend to support the ruling coalition.

But some senators insisted the two-ballot system would encourage political horse-trading and corruption. Thailand had a similar voting system in 1997, under which Thaksin became prime minister. In 2006, he was ousted in a military coup. After the coup, the 1997 constitution was abolished.

Many members of smaller political parties in both the opposition and the ruling coalition abstained from the amendment vote. These included Palang Pracharat's close ally, the Bhumjai Thai Party. The opposition's most anti-establishment and progressive party, Move Forward, also declined to cast many votes.

Move Forward's predecessor, Future Forward, which was disbanded in February 2020, won 50 out of its 81 seats from the party list in the 2019 general election. It believes the amendment to trim proportional representation seats is a tactic by the establishment aimed at halting the rise of progressive parties.

Move Forward is widely supported by the mostly younger anti-establishment, pro-democracy protesters who have been staging rallies since last year. The movement lost momentum due to the resurgence of COVID-19 and the government's frequent use of draconian lese-majeste laws to punish demonstrators.

Demonstrators protest the Thai government's handling of COVID-19 pandemic and demand Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's resignation on Sept. 5 in Bangkok.   © Reuters

But the anti-government protests have recently regained steam, putting stronger emphasis on Prayuth's resignation rather than the monarchy reforms. The movement is helped by Prayuth government's mishandling of the vaccine rollout, which led outbreaks of the highly contagious delta variant. The government's failure to contain the virus has raised worries among some ruling-party some lawmakers over their reelection prospects.

Move Forward and its predecessor have been subject to political and legal attacks by the establishment, as they look to debate in parliament the monarchy's role in Thailand, long a taboo subject. For that very reason, Move Forward is the favorite among those looking to shake up the country's politics.

The protesters demanded constitutional amendments during last year's rallies, along with Prayuth's resignation and reforms to the monarchy. Prayuth's government and the ruling party have cleverly taken advantage of the opposition and protesters' push for constitutional change to rewrite the charter in their favor.

The method of calculating the number of seats filled from party lists is expected to be clearer under the new electoral system. In the 2019 general election, the calculation method was a black box. The Election Commission awarded 12 parties a seat each. They each won less than 0.3% of all ballots cast. The 12 parties all joined the ruling coalition, giving it a big enough majority in the lower house to pass new laws easily.

Under Thailand's current constitution, a joint vote of the lower house and the Senate chooses the prime minister. A candidate with support from all 250 senators needs only 126 votes from the lower house to win the prime minister's seat. This raises the possibility of a minority government and a stalled legislative agenda. Such impasses have led to coups in Thailand in the past.

The political power of the Senate is seen by would-be reformers as problematic, but the latest round of amendments did not do much to trim it. The requirement for support from at least one-third of the Senate for any constitutional change, in effect, gives the Senate a veto over any change that threatens its power.

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