I’ve spent the previous month researching and writing ‘The Story of Thai Democracy’, and I’m happy to say that I’m now finished with writing a complete history of Thailand from the 1932 revolution to the present day. What has been taking up a fair degree of public attention lately is the question of whether or not primary voting should be made mandatory for all Thai political parties wishing to contest a general election.
The idea is simple, but often unfamiliar to a Thai audience. Simply explained, a primary voting system means that party members living in each constituency get to have a say in picking who the party’s nominee to run in that constituency will be. For example, let’s say the Democrats chose to run in Lampang’s 1st district. Multiple members of the party may be interested in running for that seat. All the Democratic party members living in Lampang’s 1st district would then vote amongst themselves to choose who would be nominated to run in the election. This system is most well known for being used in the United States, where every politician running for Congress or the presidency would often have to first face a primary vote from within the party. It has also recently been tried out in France.
It’s easy to see why this idea is attractive to the reformers. Firstly, it automatically increases the degree of democracy within the country; after all, members of parliament can no longer be chosen behind locked doors in a party’s central office, but must instead first prove their popularity among the party’s faithful. A more cynical observer could view that this system would mean candidates can no longer be handpicked by a certain shady politician living in Dubai, ending the era of ‘nominee’ politics.
Secondly, this system should theoretically increase the strength of political parties as it will encourage greater participation in party politics by the general public if they know that they can have a say in choosing who the candidates on offer will be. After all, both the Republican and the Democratic parties in the United States have large local presences due to their large memberships who participate in primary voting: why not have the same happen in Thailand? It would, in many’s views, strengthen the grassroots.
I do not view this issue through quite the same rose-tinted glasses, however. Instead, my opinion is that this primary voting system, while idealistic, is fraught with difficulties and issues that may instead increase the problems within our democracy.
First is an issue that many has pointed out: that of the impracticalities of holding the primaries. Constitution Drafting Committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan has said that “In practice, political parties, even the large ones, will be in for problems. Where will they find the time or the money to arrange the primaries?” This is a legitimate concern, particularly for smaller parties. It is especially true in the event of a snap election when parliament is dissolved, which according to the new constitution must occur within 45 days. That is not sufficient time for a primary vote.
Second is the concern about the exposure of the primary voting system to special interest groups. It’s not difficult to see this happening. While a central party committee selecting candidates is hardly invulnerable to special interest influence- quite the opposite- a primary vote in each constituency would make it much easier for smaller, local special interests to attempt to place a candidate of their choice to contest an election. This risks unleashing a pandora’s box of special interests, cronyism and corruption everywhere in the country. (And it means the door remains open for the man in Dubai to manipulate the Pheu Thai machinery).
Additionally, we can also learn from the experience of other countries that have already implemented a primary voting system. The United States alone illustrates many of the challenges that come with a primary vote. Most notably, primaries have increased the level of political extremism on both sides of the political spectrum. Party members tend to be more ideological than ordinary voters and the extreme wings of a party will have much greater influence than in a general election.
The Republican Party is a good example of this phenomenon. John Kasich, the Ohio governor
ran in the 2016 Republican primary, regularly polled well against Hillary Clinton and was the choice of many moderates. Kasich, based on his record as Ohio governor, can already be described as quite conservative, but this wasn’t enough for the GOP electorate. They poured their votes for the even more right-wing Donald Trump and Ted Cruz instead, both of whom polled terribly against Clinton (Of course, Trump won the general election, but let’s not forget that it was extremely close and that he lost the popular vote).
Those who vote in primary elections also tend to be a different demographic to regular voters. This is because voters who have the time to follow the twists and turns of a party primary and to be free to vote tend to be older and wealthier. The result is this skews the candidate choices to be those who appeal to the aforementioned demographics.
Primary voting is a proposal with good intentions, namely to empower the grassroots, increase public participation and strengthen democracy in Thailand. It is, however, impractical at this point in time. The government would do better by finding alternative policy proposals that will strengthen democratic participation by the people.