Abolish the primary vote

As the spirited debate over constitutional amendments continues across the country, a hopeful consensus is gradually emerging. The opposition has finally been able to unite around a single motion on what they want to see amended. The government and even some senators are beginning to hear the music. 

This discussion is rightfully centered around Sections 256 and Section 272 of the military drafted charger. The two clauses focuses on the power of the Senate to appoint the prime minister.

Pheu Thai has also proposed amending the electoral system, ending the bizarre formula currently used to calculate party list seats from a single ballot and returning to the use of two ballots.

Absent from these discussions, however, is another section that is also highly problematic. It is Section 45, which states: “there must be a law on the administration of political parties which requires transparency and scrutiny, and allows party members to participate in the formulation of policies and candidate selection for elections.” 

This sounds like something that would be universally welcomed. Who could possibly be against making political parties more transparent and democratic? What a wonderful idea it is to transfer more power from party leaders to party members, taking the decisions from behind closed doors into the open! 

Yet, this clause has already created headaches when applied into the organic law on political parties. In Article 50 of this law, it is required that political parties hold primaries in each constituency in which they desire to run a candidate. In any area with a local party branch, at least one hundred party members must vote; in any area without a branch, at least fifty members must vote.  

Let’s take a moment to consider the challenges that this would pose to political parties.

First, small parties would be wiped off the map under this system. It would be difficult for them to run in more than a few constituencies, given the need to recruit party members. If there is still only one ballot, and small parties cannot make that single ballot, then they are virtually guaranteed to be doomed as they will not garner enough votes to make any party list seats without running in enough constituencies. 

One can argue about whether these small parties actually provide any value to our politics, but it is their democratic right to run candidates and provide themselves as an option to the electorate. These rules also impede the ability of any new party — one which may necessarily start small — to grow. 

Secondly, even larger parties could find it difficult — not to mention costly — to hold primaries. 

According to Naewna’s statistics in June, the Democrat party currently leads in party membership with over 150,000 members, followed by Pheu Thai with over 70,000 members. Bhumjaithai had almost 60,000, and Palang Pracharath around 45,000. 

Those would be sufficient members to hold primaries nationwide, assuming an even distribution of members, but how likely is it that that distribution is even? Are there sufficient Democrat party members in the northeast, for instance, and if there are, will they turn out? What about Pheu Thai in the south? 

In addition, the insurgent Move Forward would face severe challenges. The party had around 12,000 members. That wouldn’t be sufficient to run nationwide — even assuming the party has no party branches, it would still need at least fifty members per constituency, or 17,500 members. And that assumes that every single party member in that constituency will turn up on primary day — no other errands allowed!) 

If a snap election were to be called right now, Move Forward would hardly have enough time to find and register enough party members. One cannot even begin to imagine the disillusionment from Move Forward’s supporters if they find out that the party were not allowed to run in their district. 

Requiring one hundred members, and requiring that they all show up, in a country where there is no culture of even political party donation let alone political party membership: these rules, on the whole, are impractical. So impractical, in fact, that for the 2019 general election the junta used its absolute powers to waive these rules for the first year. Even Palang Pracharath was probably not ready to tackle this hurdle.

And in the end, even if these parties were able to take up the challenge and hold primaries nationwide, is there a point? Meaningful, competitive primaries held for an electorate of one hundred or fifty would likely have candidates winning by trivial margins. On the other hand, some constituencies could see local influence triumph over any real democratic process.

Political parties should be free to run their own organizations as they see fit. If they believe in democratic culture and see themselves able to hold true primaries, they should be free to do so, and indeed that could be a selling point towards anyone looking for a free and open internal culture. 

But if a political party is unable, whether due to membership or funding, to hold primaries, there is no reason to force them to do so. You can love them, hate them, praise them or denigrate them, but there is no reason to kick them out of the political process completely.

The way forward is clear: requirements for mandatory party primaries should be abolished.

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