“Game of Power: When Mathematics Matters in Thai Elections” by Punchada Sirivunnabood

2019/42, 10 May 2019

On May 8, Thailand’s constitutional court ruled that the contentious stipulation in the organic law on parliamentary elections concerning the formula for allocating party-list seats did not violate the country’s 2017 charter. This decision means that a total of 27 parties, a new record in Thai politics, will sit in the new parliament.

Before the court released its ruling, there were two contradictory formulae for calculating the allocation of the 150 party-list seats. In the first method, the total votes of contesting parties are calculated on the basis of the votes that each party has gained nationwide and seats distributed only to those parties which have received the quota of approximately 71,000 votes for each party-list seat allocated to them. In the second method for party-list seat calculation, after filling the seats for which parties that have gained more than 71,000 votes per seat are  eligible, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) rounds up decimals to allocate the remaining seats to other political parties. This method would give seats to 11 small parties whose popular vote fell short of the quota and whose combined vote total was 548,208 votes. The allocation of seats to small parties would come at the expense of larger parties. For example, the Future Forward Party would lose up to 10 party-list seats in parliament. Many scholars and politicians argued that this latter method would breach the constitution. The court disagreed.

Later on the same day, the ECT announced the allocation of 149 party list seats on the basis of the second method. It claimed that giving small parties places in the House of Representatives reflected the constitution’s intention to make every vote count. This method, however, poses a challenge for the pro-democracy camp in Thai politics, which has struggled to muster 250 MPs to form a coalition and block the junta from continuing its effective rule under the guise of a multi-party coalition government. The 11 small parties that now hold party-list seats are more likely to join such a pro-military coalition, led by the Phalang Pracharat Party, and thus to allow that coalition to secure 254 seats of the 500 seats in the House, leaving the pro-democratic parties with only 245 seats. These seat counts, however, may change throughout the year. According to Articles 130 and 131 of the organic law on parliamentary elections, the ECT can re-calculate the allocation of party-list seats for up to one year after the election date when by-elections are conducted in any constituency. Some incumbents in the party-list system may be replaced by new parliamentarians after re-calculation.
Although it now seems likely that pro-military parties will form a broad coalition government in Bangkok, the new government will face many challenges as it must manage a coalition of more than 20 parties.  Without any empowering legislative mechanisms, especially Article 44 of the junta’s interim constitution, under which General Prayut Chan-ocha has exercised unchecked power, the new prime minister will struggle to deal with a strong opposition, including the Future Forward Party, the Phuea Thai Party and the Thai Liberal Party. As we can foresee chaotic outcomes in relations among 20 coalition parties, it will be difficult for this new government to survive a four-year-term, even with support from the junta-appointed Senate.
Dr Punchada Sirivunnabood is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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