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«Electoral Politics in Thailand Orathai Kokpol Introduction Thailand’s new constitution of 1997 (B.E. 2540) set down new rules and a framework for ...»

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Thailand: Orathai Kokpol

Electoral Politics in Thailand

Orathai Kokpol


Thailand’s new constitution of 1997 (B.E. 2540) set down new rules and a

framework for various fundamental changes in the Thai political and

administrative system. As such, great hopes for political reform towards

sustainable democracy have been pinned on it. In particular, elections, as a

necessary condition for democracy, have changed significantly. The intention

is to have more open, fair and meaningful elections, as well as recruit qualified politicians into the political system. Moreover, elections are seen as a key mechanism for establishing new politics in Thailand. In the first election under this new system, that for the House of Representatives on 6 January 2001, positive steps were taken to meet these objectives. This chapter explores the new electoral system and evaluates the extent to which the performance of this new system contributes to political development towards democracy in Thailand.

The chapter argues that the new electoral system and the outcome of the first elections have been inspiring for political transformation. The new electoral system serves to establish a standard for clean and fair elections, while the outcome of the elections that have taken place has contributed to several major changes in the Thai political system, such as a generation shift in the political sphere and the development of political parties. However, there is still a need for improvement in the administration of electoral processes and in the provision of political education, especially to the rural public. To set this in context the chapter begins with a look at the historical development of politics and elections in Thailand before the introduction of the new constitution.

Historical Development The first significant change in Thailand’s political regime was in June 1932 when a group of junior army, navy and civilian officers (mainly Western- educated), calling themselves the People’s Party, staged a coup d’état. Their demand was for a change from absolute to constitutional monarchy. Determined to avoid any bloodshed, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII [1925-1935]) agreed to the abolition of absolute monarchy and a transfer of power to a constitution- based system of government. On 10 December 1932, King Prajadhipok signed Thailand’s first constitution, thus ending 800 years of absolute monarchy.

277 Electoral Politics in Southeast and East Asia From that time until the emergence of the 1997 constitution, Thailand had 15 constitutions and 19 general elections for the House of Representatives (HoR).

The first election was as early as 1933, only a year after the revolution, and the last one under the old system was in 1996 (see Table 1).

Table 1: Elections in Thailand from 1933-1996 Year of Constituency

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From 1933 to 1996, the electoral system in Thailand was changed incrementally, mainly in response to changes in the constitution. Some changes could be considered positive developments, such as the requirement of party-affiliated candidacy (1974) and the creation of the Poll Watch Committee to monitor the election process (1992). The Poll Watch Committee was established by the government in January 1992 as a politically neutral election watchdog, consisting of non-state actors, such as members of NGOs, as well as interested citizens. It was aimed at reducing vote buying, building up political

278 Thailand: Orathai Kokpol

consciousness and contributing to fair elections. Despite some variations, two basic features of the Thai electoral system remained unchanged during that period. One was that elections were organized by the Ministry of the Interior.

Established in the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), the Ministry of the Interior became one of the most powerful ministries. Two departments, in particular, played a significant role. The Department of Local Administration (DOLA), through its provincial and district offices, was responsible for managing the whole electoral process (i.e. designating constituencies, determining the number of members of the HoR in a constituency, preparing voters’ lists and voting stations, declaring a list of eligible candidates and counting votes), announcing the election result, promoting political awareness and encouraging people to cast their votes, as well as monitoring deviant electoral behaviour of both candidates and their canvassers, and governmental officers. The Police Department was jointly responsible for keeping orderliness during elections as well as preventing and curbing deviant electoral behaviour.

The other unchanged feature was that the election system was based on a plurality system in which a candidate won an election with a simple majority.

This rule was applied to both single- and multi-member constituencies. For example, in a single-member constituency, the candidate who earned the highest scores won the seat (the ‘first-past-the-post’ system) and in a three-member constituency, the candidates with the top three scores became members of the HoR.

From the 1933 to the 1996 elections changes to the electoral system were made in three areas: voting method, designation of constituencies and conditions of candidature.

1. Voting Method: An indirect voting method was used only in the first election:

voters in each province chose a sub-district (tambon) representative who then voted for a member of the HoR of that province. From the second election onward, the voting method was changed to a direct one in which voters chose their HoR members directly.

2. Designation of constituencies: For the first election a multi-member constituency system was adopted. Each province, regarded as a constituency, had one member of the HoR. Any province with a population above 200,000 had an additional member of the HoR. For the second to the fourth elections a singlemember constituency system was applied. Each province was divided into constituencies with the ratio of 200,000 inhabitants to one member of the HoR. The surplus above 100,000 inhabitants became another constituency.

Any province with a population below 200,000 was regarded as a constituency. Under this system, voters throughout the country had an equal right to vote for one member of the HoR. For the fifth to the ninth elections there was a reversion to the multi-member constituency system. Each province was designated a constituency and had one member of the HoR.

Any province with more than 200,000 inhabitants could have an additional

279 Electoral Politics in Southeast and East Asia

member of the HoR. This ratio was reduced to 150,000 inhabitants for the sixth to the ninth elections. The small multi-member constituency system was used for the tenth to the last election under the old system in 1996. A province was divided into constituencies, but each constituency could have no more than three members of the HoR. The ratio was 150,000 inhabitants to one member of the HoR. Under this system, the number of members of the HoR in each constituency varied from one to three. For example, Samut Sakhon province, designated as a constituency, had three members of the HoR. Its neighboring province, Samut Songkhom, also designated as a constituency, had only one member of the HoR.

3. Conditions of candidature: The qualifications for candidacy changed over time. The minimum age of a candidate varied between 20 and 30 years before being set at 25 years for the tenth election under the 1974 constitution.

This constitution also made it obligatory for the first time for a candidate to be a member of a political party. The 1978 constitution (from the twelfth to the fifteenth elections) added that each political party had to present at least half the number of HoR candidates as there were seats in the HoR. Because this created problems for small parties, the 1991 constitution (from the sixteenth to the nineteenth elections) changed this condition by providing that each political party had now only to present a list of at least one third the number of candidates as there were seats in the HoR. In addition to party-affiliation, this constitution also made constituency-affiliation a condition for candidature for the first time. It provided that a candidate in a constituency must have one of the following qualifications: (1) be registered resident in that constituency; (2) be a former member of the HoR in that constituency; (3) be born in that constituency; (4) have studied in an education institution in that constituency; or (5) have been in official service in that constituency.

Although the first general election was held only a year after the absolute monarchy had been overthrown, and although there were another 18 general elections which all guaranteed universal suffrage, elections did not play as significant a role in the Thai political system as could be expected in a democratic country. Out of 19 elections, only those in 1946, 1975, 1976, September 1992, 1995 and 1996 were held in a democratic environment with the expectation of political changes to follow. The others were held either under military rule or under a semi-democratic regime, and were a show to provide a façade of legitimacy for military or military-dominated governments. Elections served to allow the military leaders to put their own men in the elected HoR, thus ensuring its support for their continued hold on power. Political participation was limited. Although the military remained in control, they preferred to make their regime appear legitimate. As a result, Thai politics fell into a vicious cycle: first there was a coup in which the military took over, sometimes with a civilian prime minister as front man. Then a new constitution was promulgated and an election was held to legitimize the military leader and his government. Then

–  –  –

another military faction staged a coup to alternate power in government. This cycle repeated itself many times, as shown in Table 1, especially under military rule. Several elections were held as a result of military coups and new constitutions.

Elections started to make an impact when Chatchai Choonhavan, a member of the HoR, became the first elected prime minister in 1988. His party won a majority of votes and General Prem Tinsulanond refused to accept another term as prime minister.1 The more open political atmosphere since 1976 contributed to the transition from military-led to democratic government. There were regular elections: while the 1978 constitution was in force, there were four general elections. Political parties operated openly and there was press freedom.

Although there were two aborted coup attempts during this period, the military became somewhat more professional and it was expected that this would be the end of military intervention in Thai politics. As a result, the 1991 coup came as a shock. In a return to their old ways, military leaders appointed a civilian prime minister (Anand Panyarachun), promulgated the new constitution of 1992 and held the February 1992 election to legitimize General Suchinda Kraprayoon as prime minister. This vicious cycle was broken when, after only 48 days in office, he was driven from power in May 1992 by massive demonstrations of Thais throughout the kingdom, which led to the massacre of civilian demonstrators by military and policy agents that became known as the Black May of 1992. After that Anand was asked to serve as interim prime minister until elections could be held. He pushed through several constitutional amendments, in particular one that required that the prime minister be an elected member of the HoR. He also established the Poll Watch Committee to monitor the electoral process. Elections were held in September 1992 with the Democrat Party emerging victorious. Chuan Leekpai became prime minister.

Two more elections were held under the 1992 constitution: the 1995 and 1996 elections. In these elections the voting age was changed from 20 to 18 years.

Both elections gave birth to democratically elected governments.

Even though elections became a process in which voters selected their political leadership, they were marred by corrupt electoral behaviour and manipulation by influential local leaders: vote buying, cheating, the partisan conduct of government officers and violence. Thailand had turned to money politics.

Money-dumping through vote-buying became a common feature of elections in Thailand, especially in rural areas. It is believed, particularly among scholars, activists and the urban middle class, that electoral venalities resulted in the return of unqualified politicians to the corridors of power. These politicians could give rise to a corrupt and unqualified government. These problems led to calls for clean and fair elections and the need for reform, not only of the electoral

1. General Prem was prime minister from 1980-1988. He had previously served as army commander-in-chief and defence minister. He enjoyed the support of important military factions, political parties and the King.

During his rule, Thailand’s economy grew, making him a popular leader.

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system but also of the political system as a whole. Public pressure for political reform was intensified by the economic crisis in the late 1990s. Political reform actually started with the passage of the 1997 constitution.

Introduction to the New Electoral System Problems in past elections, such as vote buying, cheating and the partisan conduct of government officers, together with the aspiration to establish new politics in Thailand through the electoral process led to the restructuring of the electoral system. The new electoral system, introduced by the 1997 constitution along with three organic laws,2 differs from previous systems in various ways.

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