Thitinan on turning back the clock in Thailand
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Thitinan on turning back the clock in Thailand

Thitinan with an op-ed in the Straits Times. Key exceprt:

AS THAILAND’S putsch on 22 May is being converted into a military government in civilian clothes, at issue is how far the Thai clock can be turned back. Domestic constraints and international parameters are now crucial in setting a tone and direction that will keep Thailand safe from outright military rule and ensure the return of democratic governance.

In the immediate post-coup aftermath, the generals under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) had a free hand to institute policy reforms and bureaucratic purges at the expense of the ousted government of Ms Yingluck Shinawatra and her self-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who is also a deposed former leader. Some policies involving public investment projects were retained, albeit reinvented and relaunched. This was particularly so in the case of infrastructure development spending.

But a host of top bureaucrats in the civilian and military and police sectors were also replaced with those the NCPO deemed as having more integrity and not loyal to Mr Thaksin and his Pheu Thai party machine. Martial law has been maintained throughout, but in reality only opponents of the coup and the resulting military government have been targeted.

Domestic constraints

THE interim Constitution that was put in motion two months after the coup, however, was a turning point because it demonstrated the NCPO’s determination to maintain absolute power and to control post-coup outcomes for the long term. This means controlled constitutional provisions and perhaps even electoral outcomes beyond the pledged return to democratic rule by the end of next year. Article 44 gives ultimate authority to NCPO chief Prayuth Chan-ocha above and beyond the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Another article stipulates the directions and contours of the new, permanent Constitution, and a related article suggests that Constitution-drafting can be an open-ended exercise. In other words, if the NCPO does not like the draft charter, it can jettison it and start all over again.

The NCPO-picked National Legislative Assembly (NLA) was also stacked with pro-coup loyalists.

More than half of the 200 NLA appointments were drawn from active or retired top brass of the armed forces. Some time before Sept 30, when General Prayuth’s term as army chief ends and the new fiscal year begins, the NLA can therefore be expected to choose him as interim prime minister.

The chosen prime minister will then be likely to install a range of military figures in the Cabinet, together with a small group of technocrats in economy-related ministries. Both the highly-touted National Reform Council and the Constitution Drafting Committee are likely to maintain the coup prerogatives of keeping corruption at bay by marginalising the role of former elected politicians and political parties as much as possible.

These manoeuvres are reverting to Thailand’s past by prioritising the role of the civilian and military bureaucracy, especially the army.

After decades of economic development, the Thai electorate is unlikely to tolerate a blatant military dictatorship without some semblance of democratic rule. But democratic forms will be reshaped in a way that shifts power away from elected representatives in favour of appointees from outside the electoral system who are supposedly less corrupt and more effective in administering the country.

To what extent Thais will accept a democratic and electoral apparatus guided by the military remains to be seen. This is the potentially explosive point of contest between pro-coup and pro-democracy forces. Turning the clock too far back could cause irreconcilable tension and conflict.

BP: There are a number of reforms on the agenda so the establishment can have more control. One is electoral reform. Before the coup, the electoral system in Thailand was 375 single constituency seats and 125 party list seats. 375 out of the 500  seats come from a winner-takes-all constituency vote, a political party just needs to ensure its candidate win more votes than any of the other candidates (i.e a plurality of the votes). Party list MPs accounted for 25% of the total number of MPs.

As of now, BP sees two possible ways that the establishment will try to reform the electoral system:*

1. There is the functional constituencies option – as used in Hong Kong – where 50% of MPs are from geographical constituencies and 50% are from professional organizations as outlined in this post. This would clearly given the establishment a veto as the system can easily be molded so that 10-20% of the population control 50% of the seats.

2. There is the mixed-member proportional (MMP) option. This is the electoral system used in Germany and New Zealand and some other countries. There are some slight differences on the exact form of MMP, but basically under an MMP system there is a constituency vote and a party vote just like under the previous electoral system in Thailand.  However, the party vote is more important than the constituency vote as it is the percentage of party votes which determines the share of all seats a party wins. Therefore, in countries with MMP, electoral campaigns are predicated on parties trying to maximise their party vote. For example, if there are 100 MPs with 50 constituency MPs and 50 party list MPs and then Party A win 10 out of the 50 constituency MPs, but 40% of the the party vote. Party A will get 30 party list MPs to give it 40 MPs in total (by virtue of getting 40% of the party vote Party A is entitled to this top-up of 30 party list MPs to ensure its total percentage of MPs match its percentage of the party vote).  There are some ways to game MMP – see the “collusion” part on the Wikipedia page for some examples.

One other point to note is that there is often a threshold under MMP. The threshold varies between 3%-5% or winning a constituency seat(s). This means if the threshold is 5% and a small party wins 4% they will get no seats.

Now, given that the pro-Thaksin party has done better on the constituency vote than the party vote (by better on constituency vote, BP is not referring to %, but by the total number of seats won). For example, in the 2011 election, Puea Thai won 44.94% of the vote for the constituency vote, but won 204 out of 375 seats. Nevertheless, because Puea Thai still did quite well in the 2011 election on the party vote (they won 48.42%). At first glance, this may not appear to translate into a majority, but because there would be a threshold and some of the smaller parties wouldn’t meet this threshold, Puea Thai still would have won around 50-53% of all seats which would not have change the result.

The risk for the establishment side is that if they choose the MMP system then they need to sure that the pro-Thaksin party won’t win 46%+ of the vote (assuming around a 3% threshold and the fact that previous that Cabinet Ministers couldn’t vote in a no-confidence vote) otherwise Puea Thai would effectively block the formation of a government by the Democrats and by default we would have a pro-Thaksin government again.  So far the establishment has been very risk averse (just look at the selection of NLA members with the military having over 50% on its own) and all they don’t want to “waste” this coup. Hence, unless the establishment side is confident, BP views that will choose an electoral system similar to (1) over an electoral system similar to (2).

*There are reforms like who can be a candidate and these are relevant, but the above is on the overall electoral system.