Three hurdles new parties must clear for upcoming elections

 
Overall analysis of the coming elections by Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee: Three hurdles that new parties face in the coming elections, together with the single-ballot system, opportunities for pro-military parties and campaign strategy when policies aren't the main focus suggest that little immediate change will be achieved. The elections, however, may lay the foundations for real change in the future.
 
The political atmosphere is becoming energised as politicians, both old and new, head over to the Election Commission of Thailand to register their new parties. Many enthusiastic “new generation” groups have declared their intention to run in the upcoming February elections. That might be easier said than done, however. Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, an expert on political institutions from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, believes that the election rules set by the NCPO will make it quite difficult for new parties to win seats in Parliament.  
 
 
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee
 

New party registration has been open for two weeks. What do you see?

 
I see much, slightly chaotic, enthusiasm in party registration, possibly reflecting the fact that we haven’t experienced a successful election for almost eight years, with consequent yearning for elections and political participation. At the same time, I also think the rush to register new parties is a bit excessive.  As of today about 100 parties have applied, but in the end only 50 or 60 parties will likely be actually registered; 70, at the most. Because of hurdles facing new parties, when the election actually comes around, probably no more than 50 parties will be able to enter district-level candidates, with no more than 15 winning seats in Parliament.    
 
The first hurdle: Primary elections
 
It is now much more difficult to establish a political party than it was under the 1997 and 2007 constitutions. For example, parties must have one million baht on hand, provided not by a single patron, but contributed by party members. Parties must hold district-level primary elections to select district candidates. It is possible that this requirement will be revoked via Article 44 as it looks as though it will not benefit either pro- or anti-military parties. If the measure is still in place, parties lacking the funds to hold expensive primaries may be pushed off their horses and out of the race.
 
Those who drafted the law don’t want parties to be under the control of capitalists like Thaksin and they want candidates for local office to be locally selected. That’s good in principle, except that in Thailand members of political parties are assumed to be corrupt, to the extent that, for example, members of parties are ineligible for the Senate. How can parties build a membership base, when it is considered corrupt to be a party member? Who’s going to join, given that being a member has no apparent political value, yet members must pay membership fees of 100 baht a year or 2000 for life to raise funds for the party. But since only party members can vote in a primary election, who’s going to vote? The question is whether new parties will be able to attract members and raise sufficiently high levels of funding. 
 
The law on political parties states that in areas with a local party branch at least 100 members must vote in the primary; in areas with no branch at least 50 must cast votes.  These are small enough numbers that some candidates would be able to win nomination simply by calling on their relatives to vote, compromising the legitimacy of the selection.
 
The second hurdle: The single-ballot system
 
The single-ballot system is a problem for both new and existing parties. The fact that party-list candidates come from ballots for district representatives is a problem given that two major parties dominate the political arena and most people are likely to choose either Democrat or Pheu Thai, or in some districts, Chartthaipattana or Bhumjaithai. In other words, people will choose candidates for existing, well-known parties, resulting in very low chances for new-party candidates to win seats at the district level. 
 
This means that MP candidates for new parties will act as worker bees gathering tokens in the market for party-list seats. In other words, district-level candidates for smaller parties, knowing very well that they will lose to candidates for the major parties, have to campaign so that the votes they earn may be combined with votes of losing candidates in other districts towards the 60,000 threshold for a party-list candidate to gain a seat in Parliament.
 
You can see that the system puts the interests of district candidates in conflict with those of party-list candidates: If you win the district election, your votes do not go to the party-list total. This puts elements of the party against each other and makes district candidates pawns of the national party. You enter the election knowing that you’ll never win and campaign so that those on the party list may gain a seat. So here’s the question: who would want to be a district-level candidate? 
 
Will small parties have the funds to attract enough district candidates to accumulate over 60,000 votes overall? Moreover, if no candidate for your preferred party stands for election in your district, you won’t be able to cast your vote for that party at all. Parties would need the resources to field as many district candidates as possible; contesting only a couple would never garner enough overall votes to gain seats from the party-list.
 
All this doesn’t include candidate registration fees, which have yet to be announced.
 
In the past, elections had two ballots, one for the district and one for the party-list. One party could field four or five party-list candidates but no district candidates at all, like Chuvit’s party, and win seats from the party list. I have to tell the small parties: I looked at the 2011 election results and found that some district candidates got three votes, five votes. Don’t carelessly think that people will take pity and give you 100-200 votes, or even 1000 votes, in each district. It’s not like that at all. There are candidates who receive five votes, eight votes, six votes. The chances that a small party will garner the over 60,000 votes to gain a Parliament seat, are virtually nil.
 
The third hurdle: Same party, different ID
 
An even higher hurdle for parties to clear at the district-level is that the same party will be assigned different identifying numbers in different districts. For example, in the past, if the Democrat party was assigned “10”, Democrat candidates would be “10” all across the country. Now, however, Democrat candidates in different districts will have different IDs. This means that parties cannot campaign using the same number countrywide. This will be a problem for the campaigns of individual candidates and erode the institutional characteristics of political parties, eroding the ability to campaign in the name of the party. Parties will not be able to launch campaign strategies at the national level. 

What’s kind of new parties to be able to clear these hurdles? 

 
First, the party must have resources, that is sufficient funds to attract candidates with the potential to garner votes for the party and to pay various candidate registration and membership fees. Second, new parties may be like old wine in new bottles, that is, existing politicians joining to form new parties. These politicians will not win seats at the district level over the two dominant parties, but they have have previous MPs with voter base in hand. In other words, they control the patronage networks in some areas. Such parties will be able to accumulate votes across the country and in the end may win party-list representatives. These politicians are party brokers; they’re likely to sell the party to someone else after gaining a seat in Parliament.
 
Third, the party must articulate a clear political position. In the coming election, policy will not be a major variable because of the controlling 20-year national strategy and due to the inability to campaign nationwide. Policy will not be a variable other than positions for or against the military, for or against elections. There are other social cleavages along two overlapping dimensions. First, the long-standing fact of unequal development such as that between urban and rural areas. This has long been an issue for Thaksin partisans, such that poor regions like the Northeast and the North favour Thaksin while the urban middle classes of the South and Bangkok oppose him. Another cleavage that opened after 2006 is the conflict between moral politics and populism.
 
Parties have had to show clearly on which side they stand. A party must put forth a complete ideology; It’s not just a question of saying yes or no to the military, but also of addressing social inequality. Think about it. The military has not yet removed the lock on political parties. This means that it will be difficult for parties to develop clear and definite policies. With policy proposals also overshadowed by the 20-year national strategy, specific policies will not be a focus. Ideology will be a larger force in this election.

Do you think people will vote strategically? I mean, might those who would prefer one of the new parties vote instead for a major party because they fear that the small parties won't be able to contend with the military?

 
I think everyone. We have been voting strategically for a long while, whether under a dual-ballot system or a single-ballot system allowing votes for multiple candidates. It is undeniable that many choose one of the two dominant parties, using their brains rather than expressing their actual political attitudes. But to understand the results of this behaviour, we also need to look at party strategy. As I've said, small parties have no chance of winning district-level MPs and it's not strange that we'd want to choose someone who could win. If we know a small party candidate isn’t going to win, why would we vote for him or her? New parties will need to persuade people to vote for the party’s candidates not to elect them, but to support the party’s position with votes toward gaining representation via the party list. Assessing the voting strategies of the electorate thus requires looking at party strategy as well. This is a difficult challenge for new parties.

Will pro-military parties be successful?

 
The chances are very low. A number of parties have expressed support for Gen Prayut, but we mustn't forget that this is a show of support for individuals. These parties haven’t dared to say that they support a military system as a whole. They may cheer Prayut but reject Prawit. These parties support individuals since the military is less popular than Gen Prayut. But if you ask, I think that by the time the election comes around their popularity will follow the same downward slide. We need to wait to see whether the parties that support Prayut today will continue to do so as the election nears. There may still be some that do, but if economic problems and issues concerning corruption remain as they are, it is difficult to see how such parties could succeed. We mustn't forget that, like other new parties, pro-military parties will need to clear the three hurdles we’ve outlined. You can’t even win a district-level election, and now you say that you support Gen. Prayut? Who’ll vote for you?
 
Overall, this electoral system was designed to kill off all the parties. Small or large, they all face problems. Those that will benefit from this system the most are mid-sized parties such as Bhumjaithai, Chart Pattana Pheu Phaendin and Phalong Chon. These parties have former MPs at the district level with existing voter bases. They will win representatives at the district level and also gain votes for the party-list. Such parties will receive more votes than before but not enough to overtake the Democrat and Pheu Thai Parties.

What should we keep our eyes on between now and the election?

 
Watch the new parties, their positions, proposals and alternatives that may offer ways out of the cycle of conflict. I would have voters study these new parties and use reason and information in making any decision. 
 
Look at party strategy, their visions for solving the country’s problems and who they advocate for prime minister in order to discover the ideology of each party.
 
Monitor strategies in placing candidates, both for the district and party-list representatives since there may be problems finding willing candidates or raising sufficient funds. They also need to bring up a new generation politicians and give them greater roles.
 
What I want to end with is to say that the upcoming February election won’t bring about drastic change. Significant changes will have to await the subsequent election. Change takes time, and new parties will not yet be able to thoroughly shake up the system. However, the election will lay the foundations for change over the long term. There will be more new parties, shaking the framework of the old system and bringing about significant change in the party and political systems.