Past Posts

Thailand’s Delayed Structural Transformation

posted Feb 15, 2017, 8:33 AM by Joel Selway   [ updated Feb 15, 2017, 3:02 PM ]

Guest Post: Jacob Ricks

08 February 2017

Observers have long noted the disparity in levels of economic well-being between Bangkok and the rest of Thailand (Pasuk and Baker 2016). Indeed, this inequality has been partly blamed for the enduring political turmoil plaguing the country since 2005 (Hewison 2014). In some of my current research, I argue that much of this inequality can be traced to conditions of a delayed structural transformation in Thailand. In this essay, I first describe this phenomenon before examining one of its contributing factors, seasonal migration. I further contend that social and economic upheavals resulting from structural transformation warrant much more attention than they have received.

Structural transformation refers to the transition of economic activity from one broad sector of the economy into another. In most cases, this means that as a country develops economically, labor and investment moves out of the agricultural sector into industry and services. These shifts involve massive upheavals in the lives of those who take part in the changes, especially poor farmers, as they are forced to leave the countryside and join the ranks of the urban economy, often entering the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder (Timmer 1997, 624).

Despite these potentially negative side effects, labor’s move out of agriculture is a necessary step in improving the welfare of the countryside. This is due to the fact that even though agricultural production might increase as a country develops, agriculture’s proportion of GDP generally decreases, meaning that a relatively smaller piece of the economic pie is available for farmers to split among themselves. If the proportion of labor in agriculture were to remain constant as the proportion of GDP produced by agriculture decreases, those farmers become poorer relative to their compatriots employed in industry and services even if farm incomes increase in absolute terms.

To make this clearer, imagine a hypothetical country illustrated in Table 1: At the outset, the country embodies a primarily agricultural population with one-quarter of economic production coming from the sector. Industry and services, though, produce a large surplus for their employment share, meaning those employed in these sectors enjoy a greater piece of the economic pie. The gap between GDP share and labor share serves as an approximate measure of structural transformation, with larger numbers indicative of imbalances in the economy; the closer the gap is to zero, the further along the process of structural transformation (Timmer and Akkus 2008). Fast forward 35 years, and the country has enjoyed substantial economic growth. If the country had experienced structural transformation during this period, most of the labor force would have abandoned agriculture to pursue higher-wage jobs in the cities, moving into industry and services. In this hypothetical scenario, 15 percent the labor in agriculture now produces about 10 percent of the GDP, placing farmers almost on par with workers in industry and services as to their proportion of the economy. On the other hand, in the scenario with delayed structural transformation, we still see that both industry and services enjoy large positive differentials while agriculture’s negative gap remains. This signifies massive inequality between those employed in these sectors; in other words, industry and service workers have remained much wealthier than farmers.

Table 1: Structural Transformation (ST) Example


Beginning Point

(Year 0)

Successful ST

(Year 35)

Delayed ST

(Year 35)

Economic Sector

GDP Share


Labor Share (%)


GDP Share


Labor Share (%)


GDP Share


Labor Share (%)
































We can now turn to Thailand. Since the 1970s, the country has transitioned from a low-income country to one enjoying upper-middle-income status, with agriculture’s share of the economy decreasing from about 25 percent of GDP in 1980 to only 11 percent in 2013. We would expect, then, that the number of Thais involved in agriculture should have decreased dramatically during this period, but this has not been the case, as demonstrated in the data in Figure 1. Since 1985, agriculture has generated less than one-fifth of Thailand’s GDP, and in recent years the number hovers at about ten percent, yet the Thai labor share in agriculture remains above 40 percent.[1] From this data, we can also conclude that most of the labor which moved out of agriculture was absorbed by the services sector, since industrial employment has remained stable at about 20 percent since the late 1990s. If we measure structural transformation via the difference between GDP share and labor share in 2013, agriculture exhibits a negative 30.51 percent gap. This suggests that one of the major sources of economic inequality in Thailand can be traced back to disproportionate shares of employment in the broad sectors of the economy relative to the productivity of those sectors. Thailand’s farmers have lingered in agriculture despite depressed incomes relative to the other sectors of the economy.

Figure 1: GDP and Employment Shares of Agriculture, Industry and Services, 1980-2013

Source: World Bank World Development Indicators

To paint a clearer picture of Thailand’s delayed structural transformation, Figure 2 places Thailand in a comparative light, plotting the percent of employment devoted to agriculture against a country’s level of development measured by GDP per capita (purchasing power parity in 2011 USD). The dashed line in the figure is based on a growth model, which predicts a country’s approximate percentage of agricultural employment based on its level of development (see also Klyuev 2015). Among the 123 countries for which we have sufficient data, Thailand stands out as one of the furthest from our expectations based on its level of development. Thailand’s agricultural employment is 24.1 percentage points higher than the growth model predicts, the 6th furthest from the line.[2] Thailand’s extreme outlier status is difficult to explain; among the other top ten outliers, five are among the United Nation’s “least developed countries” (Laos, Bhutan, Kiribati, Ethiopia, Rwanda), two are island nations with little agriculture (Marshall Islands, Kiribati), and three are former or current conflict zones (West Bank and Gaza, Kosovo, and Rwanda). Only Thailand and Azerbaijan have per capita incomes over $8,500 (PPP), but unlike Azerbaijan, there is no clear factor (i.e. oil boosting GDP per capita) explaining Thailand’s disproportionate number of farmers. 

Figure 2: Employment in Agriculture plotted against Level of Development

Source: World Bank World Development Indicators

What, then, is delaying Thailand’s structural transformation? 

While this question is much too broad for this short essay, we can consider one contributing factor: Rather than make the full transition into other economic sectors, Thai farmers rely on seasonal and off-farm labor to avoid falling even further behind their urban counterparts. Pasuk and Baker (2008, 71-72) claim that as much as one-quarter of the workforce, about 9.5 million people in 2016, is engaged in informal employment, which draws many laborers from the agricultural sector. The Ministry of Labor’s quarterly labor survey (triannually prior to 1998) helps us understand the relationship between agriculture and the informal sector. As Figure 3 demonstrates, there has been a sustained pattern of seasonal fluctuation in agricultural employment, wherein, during the main planting and harvest season for rice, agricultural employment increases by approximately five percent, or over 2 million individuals. This is largely driven by numbers in the North and Northeast regions. The Central region as well as the South have much more stable agricultural populations.

The count of 2 million, though, underestimates of the number of Thai farmers who rely on off-farm incomes to supplement their agricultural earnings. Somchai (2016, 508) reports that by the mid-1990s only about 30 percent of Thai farm households derived at least half of their incomes from agriculture. That number has certainly shrunk in the last two decades. During the off-season, millions of Thai farmers from the North and Northeast rely on seasonal labor to supplement their agricultural income; in many cases, farmers’ main source of livelihood comes from their work outside of agriculture, i.e. labor in the informal sector, such as driving taxis, motorcycles, street vending, etc. Those that remain on the farm often rely on remittances from their migrating family members.

Figure 3: Thailand’s Agricultural Employment by Region, 1995-2016

Source: Thai Labor Force Survey (various issues)

Thus large numbers of Thais from the North and Northeast retain their farmer hat even as they spend much of their life in some other trade, often in the informal sector, struggling to prop up household income at an acceptable level, albeit lower than their comrades in formal industry and services. Reliance on relatively low incomes from agricultural production combined with uncertainties in the informal sector make Thai farmers particularly interested in obtaining subsidies and assistance from the state (see Walker 2012; 2015).

The discussion and data above provide further explanation as to why subsidies are so popular among both farmers and Thai politicians. A delayed structural transformation has resulted in a  large proportion of the population still involved in agriculture that must content itself with a diminishing proportion of the economic pie; with low rice and other commodity prices, these farmers rely more and more heavily on the lower rungs of the non-agricultural sector. Politicians of both democratic and dictatorial slants, in their efforts to seek popular support, find receptive audiences among the populous agricultural community. For instance, the Shinawatra clan’s paddy pledging schemes won immense popularity in rural areas. At the other end of the spectrum, immediately after seizing power in 2014, General Prayuth’s first item of business was to distribute money to farmers (Bangkok Post, May 23, 2016), and despite accusing democratic governments of populism and corruption in association with agricultural subsidies, the junta was quick to adopt its own scheme, albeit less expansive and less popular than those of the Shinawatra governments (Edens, 2015).

Of course, this post offers only a brief look at Thailand’s delayed structural transformation and a preliminary glimpse as to how such a large agricultural population has endured. It leaves many questions unanswered: Why have Thai farmers preferred to stay on the farm? What effect have government policies had on structural transformation? How has politics shaped state responses to the transition out of agriculture? Why hasn’t the Thai state spent more time and effort in encouraging industrial expansion to absorb agricultural labor? What role do poor levels of education and training play in hindering structural transformation?

While many scholars have recently focused on the palace and the military in their search to understand the political uncertainty which plagues the country, questions related to Thailand’s delayed structural transformation merit greater attention than they have received. The Thai state’s ability and willingness to address the challenges of structural transformation promises to shape Thai politics in the near future, especially as the military junta promises democracy. Unless the state develops the capacity to respond to the impact of these vast economic and social transitions, political turbulence is likely to continue.


Edens, Rob. 2015. “ ‘New’ Rice Scheme Reveals Thailand Junta’s Dearth of Ideas.” The Diplomat (October 24).

Hewison, Kevin. 2014. “Considerations on Inequality and Politics in Thailand.” Democratization 21(5): 846-866 

Klyuev, V. 2015. “Structural Transformation – How does Thailand Compare?” IMF Working Paper 15/51.

Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker. 2016. Unequal Thailand: Aspects of Income, Wealth and Power. Singapore: NUS Press.

Somchai Phatharathananunth. 2016. “Rural Transformations and Democracy in Northeast Thailand.” Journal of Contemporary Asia, 46(3): 504-519.  

Timmer, C. Peter. 1997. “Farmers and Markets: The Political Economy of New Paradigms.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 79: 621-627.

Timmer, C. Peter and Selvin Akkus. 2008. The Structural Transformation as a Pathway out of Poverty: Analytics, Empirics and Politics. Working Paper No. 150. Center for Global Development.

Walker, Andrew. 2012. Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Walker, Andrew. 2015. “From Legibility to Eligibility: Politics, Subsidy and Productivity in Rural Asia.” TRaNS 3(1): 45-71.

[1] Here I use World Bank WDI numbers for 2013, which some argue overestimate agricultural labor due to seasonal fluctuations in numbers, as discussed below (see Klyuev 2015, 23). The World Bank appears to adopt the highest agricultural employment count reported in Thailand’s Labor Force Survey, which occurs during harvest season.

[2] The ten countries furthest from their predicted values are, in order of absolute values: Laos (32.2 percent), Marshall Islands (-32.2 percent), Kiribati (-29.3 percent), West Bank and Gaza (-28.7 percent), Bhutan (27.8 percent), Thailand (24.1 percent), Azerbaijan (23.9 percent), Kosovo (-23.4 percent), Rwanda (23.1 percent), and Ethiopia (-22.9 percent). 

Tribute to King Bhumibol Adulyadej

posted Oct 13, 2016, 9:53 AM by Joel Selway   [ updated Oct 14, 2016, 10:01 PM ]

I grew up as a half Thai in Britain. The daughter of a career diplomat, my mother had grown up in the control center of Thai nationalism--the bureaucracy, which ruled the country for decades in partnership with the military. But while I was aware of the King growing up, our house was not adorned with his picture or any kind of home-made shrine, unlike that of my extended family's homes in Thailand, whom I would get to know as an adult. The thousands of miles distance from Thailand and my mother's conversion to Christianity made the King a figure I was aware of, but for which I had no particular feelings. We did not speak Thai in the house, a practice common in mixed-heritage families during the seventies and eighties; only English. I went through the British school system, and my identity was fully British for all intents and purposes. I went to the William Harvey Grammar School in Folkestone and then later the Holy Trinity School, a Church of England school, in Crawley.

As a kid I have vivid memories of watching Charles and Diana's wedding, not so fond memories of being forced to watch the Queen's speech every Christmas, and joined in various VE celebrations where the Union Jack seemed to be the sole piece of decoration. As an adult I witnessed the meteoric displays of British affection for the monarchy at Princess Diana's funeral, the Queen's coronation anniversary, the wedding of William and Kate, and the 2012 Olympics. I had no such connections to the Thai monarchy growing up.

Indeed, my only connection to the King had been prematurely severed by the passing of my mother in the spring of 1989 when I was just twelve. I wouldn't see a member of my Thai family for another nine years. In 1998, wanting to learn Thai, I ventured up to my aunt and uncle's house in Kingston Upon Thames. My uncle was on assignment in the Thai embassy in London, and his wife, who shared the same nickname as my mum (all Thais have a nickname), Tuk, began teaching me Thai. I stayed the night and my makeshift bed was in the front room. As I was settling in to go to sleep, my Aunt popped into the front room and stood before a portrait of the king, her hands clasped in a traditional Thai wai; what was she doing? It seemed like she was . . . it couldn't be, but, yes, she was praying to the King. To a throughly English man, the whole no-more-than-thirty-second ritual was utterly mysterious and fascinating. It peaked every last fiber of my curiosity. Was this King a man or a god?

I would spend a good portion of the next decade or so of my life learning the language, history, and culture of my mother's homeland, in part to answer this question. I learned Thai at university, minored in Asian studies where I wrote every term paper on Thailand, and then went on to do a PhD at the University of Michigan. I studied political science and continued to take Thai language and Southeast Asian courses. For my dissertation, I spent a year in Thailand on a Fulbright-Hays scholarship. I had gone there to study the politics of universal healthcare in a developing democracy, but the King could not be pried from politics in Thailand. No matter how much I wanted to believe that Thailand was a modern democracy on the verge of first-world status, the coup in September 2006 and the events over the past decade seared into my mind the role of this traditional political institution of the monarchy.

I had arrived for my dissertation field research in the midst of the Yellow Shirt protests in 2006--yellow being the color of the King's birthday--against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. One claim made by the Yellow Shirts was that they were protecting the King from the alleged usurper, Thaksin. In between the topic of my dissertation, I devoured books on Thai nationalism and the history of the King. I meant to write on that topic next. A decade later and I am in the midst of penning a book manuscript on Thai nationalism. I have conducted three surveys in Thailand over the past five years all with the goal of understanding the King's influence on Thai politics. Such questions cannot, of course, be openly discussed. Even if they could, truthful answers could never be guaranteed on such a sensitive topic. As such, I turned to survey experiments to learn as much as I could about the King.

Let me share with you the findings from one of the studies. In this study, with Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan and Noppadon Kannika, formerly of Assumption University, we presented Thai respondents with a hypothetical candidate for political office. After describing various basic features of this candidate, we then varied whether the candidate made the following statement or not: I will do everything in my power to protect the institution of the monarchy. What difference did this make on Thais favorability of the candidate? The answer is complex, so I will just answer this for one subsection of the Thai populace. For Thais that supported the party of Thaksin Shinawatra, then known as Pheu Thai, when the candidate was Pheu Thai and declared support for the monarchy, support for that candidate increased significantly.

Why is this important? As the King has now passed, we get to see played out in Thai politics the predictions of numerous observers. Perhaps the most extreme prediction is that of a civil war along ethno-cultural lines (link). Indeed, the supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor parties are concentrated in the North and Northeast of Thailand, areas that speak different languages and have histories of separate polities from modern-day Thailand. These are the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin. Some Bangkok Thais might have images of them as traitors to the Nation, conjuring up memories of the Red Shirt protests in 2010 that turned the financial district into a near-on war zone; remembering calls for separatism right before the most recent coup in 2014. But these same Thais respond positively to candidates that declare support for the King. Indeed, the numerous questions I designed to get at the King's influence across these three surveys all point to a similar positive influence.

How do these results tie in with my own mixed-heritage upbringing? As a half Thai who grew up on the other side of the world without any particularly strong affection for the King of Thailand, I still get chills when I stand up at the cinema in Thailand and hear the King's anthem played to a beautifully choreographed video on His life. These feelings are only magnified for Thais who grew up in Thailand; not just Bangkok Thais who chose to don Yellow Shirts in past political movements, but Northern and Northeastern Thais who chose to wear red shirts instead, Khmer-speaking Thais living near the Cambodian border, ethnic minority Thais in the hills of Chiangmai. The vast majority of them will all be deeply pained at the King's passing. Now is the time to unite, not divide. Accept that political differences exist, discuss them, resolve them. Don't use the King's name as ammunition in a political struggle. Then the King's positive influence I was able to detect in academic research will actually mean something. If in His passing his memory is used for division, that betrays any type of legacy he would have wanted for the nation he helped consolidate.

Dr. Joel Sawat Selway, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science
Director Political Economy and Development Labs (PEDL)
Faculty Associate, Asian Studies Program
Brigham Young University

The Effects of Thailand’s Proposed Electoral System (by Allen Hicken and Bangkok Pundit)

posted Feb 9, 2016, 5:22 PM by Allen Hicken

This post is co-authored and cross-posted with Bangkok Pundit.


On 29 January, the second group of constitutional drafters appointed by Thailand’s NCPO released the draft of another new Constitution. Like its predecessor the current draft proposes to change the way Thailand elects its representatives. Recall that the electoral system Thailand used in 2011 was a mixed member majoritarian system (MMM) with 375 single-seat constituencies, and 125 party list seats, elected from a single national constituency using proportional representation. The previous constitutional draft (rejected by the National Reform Council last September) called for a switch to a German-style mixed member proportional system (MMP). The new draft proposes yet another type of mixed member system—what is being called a mixed member apportionment system (MMA).

Under the proposed MMA system, Thailand would have 350 constituency seats and 150 party list seats (Section 78). Instead of voters casting two separate votes, one for a candidate and one for a party list, under MMA voters will cast a single, fused ballot for a candidate (Section 80). That vote will count as both a vote for the candidate, and simultaneously a vote for that candidate’s party for purposes of the party list seats. The total number of votes a party receives nationwide via this single vote will determine the total share of seats a party is entitled to (Section 86). Party list seats will be added to a party’s constituency seats until this total is reached (Section 86).  In this way, MMA is more proportional than the 2011 MMM system which simply added the party list seats to the constituency seats already won by a party.

The Effects of MMA

What would the likely effects of MMA on Thailand’s election results be? To determine this we ran a simulation using 2011 election results. The biggest assumption we need to make in order to conduct this simulation is that voters would behave the same way under MMA as they did under MMM.[1] In other words, the simulation assumes that voters would treat their vote as primarily a constituency vote, i.e. they would cast the same constituency vote under the new rules as they did under the old rules.

Losers and Winners

Table 1 compares the number of seats each party captures under MMA with the number of seats they won in 2011.[2]  Figure 1 compares each party’s seat share in 2011 with the seat share under MMA and under the previously proposed MMP.


A. As Table 1 and Figure 1 indicate, Pheu Thai is the clear loser under MMA. While Pheu Thai remains the largest party, they go from winning 265 seats (53%) to winning only 225 seats (45%). The new system, MMA, is even worse for Pheu Thai than the previously proposed MMP. This is because Pheu Thai (and its predecessor, Palang Prachachon) always captured a higher percentage of party list votes than they did constituency votes, as Table 2 shows. In effect, the separate party list vote gave Pheu Thai a seat bonus. This disappears under our simulation.

B. The other big loser under the proposed system is small parties who don’t have the resources to compete in a large number of constituencies. Regardless of Chuwit’s jailing, Rak Prathet Thai would be in trouble under MMA because they were competing for the party list vote while not simultaneously competing in constituencies. Under the previously proposed MMP they would have been one of the big winners (nearly 3% of the seats), but they get no seats under MMA (see Figure 1). In order to compete under MMA, parties like Rak Prathet Thai will have to adjust their strategies and begin competing for the constituency vote—ideally fielding candidates for all seats throughout the country. However, such a campaign strategy requires resources—resources that may be beyond most small parties. The option to compete solely on the party list, allowed under MMP and the 2011 electoral system, would disappear under MMA. Thus the irony of a system that has purportedly been designed to help smaller parties: in theory, a proportional electoral system with no threshold would be good for small parties, but no separate party list vote will make it difficult for new small parties with no local base to compete. 


The biggest winners under the new system are the medium-sized parties who can compete in a large number of constituencies nationwide, but who have been unable to capture a large share of party list votes in the past. These include Bhum Jai Thai, Chart Pattana Pheu Paendin, and to a lesser extent, Chart Thai Pattana, who pick up an additional 22, 13, and 5 seats respectively under MMA. Notably, all three of these medium sized parties would do poorly under the previously proposed MMP than under both MMA and MMM. Again, the reason is their basis of support. These parties tend to be competitive in a handful of constituencies, but do not command much of a national following. They are therefore at a competitive disadvantage under MMP, and to a lesser extent, MMM. On other hand, MMA, by calculating the party list seats from the constituency votes, works to these parties’ great advantage.

What of the Democrat Party?

The Democrats could be considered partial losers or partial winners depending on how we look at it. On the surface, it appears that the Democrats receive essentially the same number of seats under MMA compared with the 2011 election results. However, they could be considered “winners” because Pheu Thai does worse under MMA, and loses its majority. This makes it more likely that the Democrats would be part of or even lead a coalition government

Nevertheless, the Democrats seem to consider themselves partial losers. For example, see the concerns raised by Abhisit in comments to the Bangkok Post. Under almost any proportional system that uses the party list vote to determine the overall percentage of seats a party wins, the Democrats would do better than under the 2011 MMM system. This includes simple proportional representation or the previously proposed MMP. However, the MMA system chosen by the drafters is one of the few proportional systems where the Democrats actually don’t do better. The reason is the Democrats, like Pheu Thai, always do better on the party list vote compared with the constituency vote. As Table 2 above shows, the Democrats did 10.2% better in 2007 and 2.8% better in 2011.  The Democrats don’t profit from this competitive advantage under MMA, and as it result it undermines the advantages of moving to a more proportional system.


To summarize, like the previous draft, the new electoral system in the draft constitution, MMA, reduces the electoral fortunes of Pheu Thai. MMA also boosts the prospects of medium-sized political parties with strong constituency bases (something the previously proposed MMP failed to do), while limiting the gains for the Democrats and small parties that compete mainly through the party list.

Recall that we assume in all of this that voters will treat their vote as primarily a constituency vote, i.e. they would cast the same constituency vote under the new rules as they did under the old rules. But there are good reasons to believe that with that one vote voters would be more likely to think party first (given the current level of polarization and given how we expect parties to campaign) and that would come at the expense of small and medium-sized local parties. Voters, in other words, would no longer have the luxury of voting for their local favorite AND picking a side in the larger political conflict. There are some indications that voters in other places that use a single ballot do tend think of their vote as primarily a party vote (for example, Mexico). As a result we expect the seat share for small and medium-sized parties is probably overstated (provided the two big parties don’t collapse).

[1] Our understanding from the wording in Section 86 of the draft constitution is that the allocation seats is calculated using the Hare quota. We make the following additional assumptions. 1) The 2011 election had 375 constituency seats while the new system reduces this to 350 seats. We assume that in the reducing the seats from 375 to 350 the proportion of seats across parties remains the same. 2) Section 86 does not specify how unassigned seats are too be allocated. We used the common Largest Remainder method. 3) Section 86 was also not clear about what do in the case of overhang seats (of which there were 2 from Palang Chon). Since the number of seats is fixed at 500 we took the seats away from the two smallest parties, but the basic results don’t change if we take them away from the two biggest parties. 4) Since the draft mentions no electoral threshold we assume the threshold is 0.

[2] For other analysis that reaches conclusions different than ours see

Thailand's Containment Constitution (by Allen Hicken)

posted May 13, 2015, 12:00 AM by Allen Hicken

The drafters of the new Thai constitution seem determined to go much farther than their predecessors were willing or able to in 2007 to try and replace “bad people” with “good people”, while putting a hedge around the power of elected politicians. The term that is often used is a system of better checks and balances. However, the meaning of that term is very different in Thailand than what it means in much of the rest of the world. Usually, checks and balances refers to elected representatives checking each other. For example, the opposition is given power to limit the power of government, or one elected branch of government checks the power of the other, or elected representatives grant independent agencies oversight power.

This draft constitution suggests that reformers have a very different model of checks and balances in mind—one which follows from their belief about the problem with Thai Democracy.[1] According to this view, all of the problems and instability in Thailand boil down to one thing: ignorant voters keep electing bad people. This suggests two solutions. First, reeducate voters and teach them how to cast their votes for “good people”. CDC head Borwornsak argues that the new charter requires the state to take and active role in promoting “good citizenship.[2] Efforts to help voters learn to vote the “right” way are embedded throughout the draft constitution—including a section on “Citizenship and Citizens’ Duties” (which comes before the sections on “Rights and Liberties” and “Human Rights”), a lengthy chapter on “Good Leadership and Desirable Political System”, and a new National Moral Assembly that will provide the helpful service of pre-screening potential candidates,  monitoring elected representatives, and passing along that information to voters.

The second solution to the election of “bad” people is to limit the power of bad politicians, and instead, put in place institutions that let “good people” (almost by definition, unelected people) make the key decisions. Hence the birth of, or more properly, the resurrection of, the containment constitution. The list of institutions in the new constitution that are designed to contain the power of elected representatives is truly stunning. These include institutions that not only constrain the authority of elected politicians and monitor their behavior, but which also set the legislative agenda for elected representatives. A partial list of these containment institutions follows:

       More powerful Senate, most of which is not directly elected

       Stronger Constitutional Court

       New Appointment Committee

       Public Finance and Budgeting Division

       National Reform Assembly

       National Reform Strategy Committee

       National Moral Assembly and Council

       Referendum required for constitutional amendment

Much like the containment of a virulent virus, this new constitution appears to be designed to try and cordon off and contain elected politicians and thus prevent their influence from infecting the rest of the Thai body politic. All this while empowering “good people” to manage Thailand’s affairs without the corrupting and inconvenient interference from elected representatives.

[1] This article references drafts of the new constitution in Thai and English (unofficial translation) as obtained here:,

Partisan Patterns and Malapportionment in Thailand’s Party List (Part II) (by Allen Hicken & Bangkok Pundit)

posted Apr 6, 2015, 9:36 PM by Allen Hicken

This post is co-authored and cross-posted with Bangkok Pundit.  

We have been looking at the proposals for Thailand’s new 6-region party list. In part one we discussed the high degree of malapportionment in the distribution of seats across the 6 regions. In part two we showed that the primary motivation behind the malapportionment does not appear to be giving one of the two largest parties an advantage over the other. 

Again, a couple of caveats. Neither of us have any first-hand knowledge of the drafter’s and/or the EC’s motivations. We are merely inferring intent from the nature of the proposal—and it is certainly possible that we are wrong. It is also possible that the current proposal will be modified before becoming codified. 

So, what could be behind the distribution of seats in the current party list plan? A common goal expressed by the current authorities is increasing the power and importance of small and medium sized parties, while reducing the power of the two largest parties (see here and here for some examples). The current proposal appears to be consistent with that goal. Table 1 below shows the party list vote shares and the total seat shares for small and medium-sized parties in the malapportioned 5 regions. The numbers come from the 2011 election. It is striking that the average share of party list votes for smaller parties is 61 percent higher in the regions that are over-represented (13% in in under-represented regions vs 21% in over-represented regions). The disparity in seat shares is even starker. In under-represented regions smaller parties managed to capture only 6 percent of the seats, while in the over-represented regions they captured nearly a third of the total seats. Figure 1 presents another view of the same data. Both Table 1 and Figure 1 suggest a clear pattern: party list seats have been distributed in such a way as to try to give more weight to regions that in the past have supported small and medium-sized parties.

If indeed one of the motivations behind the distribution of seats across regions is to boost the fortunes of smaller parties, would we expect this effort to be successful? Our analysis using the 2011 election results suggests the malapportioned electoral system will not actually benefit the smaller parties. To simulate the effect of these proposed rules we re-calculate the 2011 election results using the proposed changes. Specifically:

  • We award seats using the German-style mixed-member proportional system rather than the mixed-member majority system Thailand has traditionally used.
  • We reduce the total number of seats from 500 to 455— 250 constituency seats and 205 party list seats, split across 6 regions, as described here.
  • We incorporate overhang seats by increasing the size of the parliament by one seat for every overhang seat. (For more on overhang seats see here.)
  • Since there is some debate over whether the party list will use a .5% threshold or no threshold at all, we run the simulation for both.

The results are summarized in Figure 2 below. 

The first set of columns shows the actual results from the 2011 election, where Pheu Thai won 53% of the seats, to the Democrats 31.8%. Small and medium-sized parties collectively captured 15.2% of the seats.

The next two sets of columns show what the results would be under the proposed rules, using first no threshold (second set of columns) and then a .5% threshold (third set of columns). Despite all of the changes to the electoral system, and the high degree of malapportionment in the distribution of the party list seats, small and medium-sized parties gain no ground on the two largest parties. Their share of seats remains the same, regardless of which threshold is used.

Ironically, small and medium-sized parties would do a bit better under a system where each region received a proportional share of the party list seats (fourth set of columns). For example, supposed that we made the number of party list seats in each region proportional to the region’s population (36 seats for the Upper Central region, 33 seats for the North etc.). Small and medium-sized parties actually capture a few more seats under this proportional allocation. Figure 3 shows why this is the case. Notice that Pheu Thai and the Democrats win exactly the same number of seats (225 vs 166 respectively) regardless of whether there is a high degree of malapportionment in the distribution of seats or no malapportiontment. However, the small and medium-sized parties do a bit better. With more seats available in the previously under-represented North and Upper Northeast regions, four smaller parties are able to pick up extra seats: Chart Pattana Pheu Paendin (2 seats), Social Action Party (1), and Bhum Jai Thai (1). Fewer seats in the Lower Northeast and Upper Central regions translates into a loss of two seats for Rak Prathet Thai (partially offset by an additional seat for the party in the North). After the proportional adjustment in the Lower Northeast and Upper Central regions Bhum Jai Thai and Chart Thai Pattana are also entitled to fewer seats. However, since the seats each party won in those regions were constituency seats, they are allowed to keep those seats as overhangs and the number of seats in parliament adjusts upwards from 461 to 464. 

All in all, the results are consistent with our earlier simulations of the effects of MMP. Small and medium-sized parties do not do much better under MMP, while the biggest effect of MMP is to reduce the gap between the largest party (Pheu Thai) and the second place party (Democrats).

Why don’t small and medium-sized parties fare better in our simulations even though at face value the electoral system seems to be stacked in their favor? There are two answers to this question. First, adjusting the distribution of party list seats actually does very little to help smaller parties because most small parties don’t win their seats via the party list. MMP is designed to compensate parties that get a lot of party list votes but few constituency seats. Since small and medium-sized parties, such as Chart Thai Pattana and Bhum Jai Thai, have traditionally won their seats in constituency elections, and done poorly on the party list, then MMP, even with a high degree of malapportionment in the distribution of seats, brings little benefit. In fact, the reduction of constituency seats from 375 to 250 likely offsets any benefits that MMP brings to smaller parties. Second, electoral systems set a ceiling on the number of parties that can be supported, but they do not set a floor. More permissive systems, like MMP, have higher ceilings and provide opportunities for more parties to win seats, but voters do not have to take that opportunity. Indeed, as long as most Thai voters continue to separate into two competing electoral blocks, as they have since 2001, the prospects for smaller parties will continue to be dim, regardless of what electoral system Thailand chooses.
NOTE: "2011-proposed" refers to a simulation using the 2011 election results with the proposed malapportioned distribution of party list seats as outlined in previous posts.
"2011-No Mallapportionment" refers to a simulation using the 2011 election results where we have adjusted the party list seats so they are in proportion to the population.

Partisan Patterns and Malapportionment in Thailand’s Party List (Part 1) (by Allen Hicken & Bangkok Pundit)

posted Apr 2, 2015, 9:40 PM by Allen Hicken

This post is co-authored and cross-posted with Bangkok Pundit.  

In our last post we described the information coming out about the possible shape of the new Thai electoral system. One of the striking things about the proposal currently circulating is the malapportionment in the distribution of party list seats across the 6 regions. To recap, the Upper Central and Lower Northeast regions are highly over-represented (getting many more seats than their population would warrant) while the Lower Central, North and Upper Northeast regions are highly under-represented. The number of seats being allocated to the South is relatively proportional to its population. (See Table 1 here for a breakdown of the provinces within each region).

The obvious question is why the authorities have departed from the past norm of distribution of seats by population (giving Thailand one of the most proportionally distributed parliaments in the world). We could speculate as to why, but we will never know the true reason. However, we can examine who will gain and who will lose from the change.  This is what we will do in these posts.

A couple of caveats are in order to start with. 1) Neither of us is privy to the drafters’ motivation behind the plan. 2) It is quite possible that either the CDC or the EC will amend the party list scheme.

With that out of the way let’s turn to the analysis. Whatever the motives behind the malapportioned party list may be, it does not appear to be a simple case of naked partisanship. Figure 1 below summarized the degree to which each of the six regions is over or under-represented by plotting the difference between the share of population and share of seats allocated to each region. The color of each region indicates the results of the 2011 for the provinces in each region. In red regions Pheu Thai captured the largest share of the party list votes, while in blue regions, the Democrat Party was the top vote-getter. Overall, from Figure 1 there does not appear to be any clear partisan pattern.

Let’s take a closer look at how each of the two largest parties performed in each of the 6 regions. Perhaps the margins of victory for Pheu Thai/Democrats are systematically different in the over and under-represented regions. Table 1 displays the party list vote share for each of the two largest parties in 2011 in each region, as well as the share of total seats the party won in the region (this refers to both constituency and party list seats). The table offers only weak support for idea that pro-Democrat or anti-Pheu Thai sentiment is driving this proposal. In 2011 Pheu Thai performed a little worse in the over-represented areas and a little better in the under-represented, but the pattern is the same for the Democrats. If the primary motivation was to tilt things in favor of the Democrats we would expect a very different pattern, and we would expect to see the South as one of the over-represented regions, which it is not.

So if changing the balance of power between the two largest parties is not the primary motivation behind the malapportioned party list, what is? We will pick up this question in the next post.

The Curious Case of Thailand’s Malapportioned Party List System (by Allen Hicken & Bangkok Pundit)

posted Mar 31, 2015, 9:31 PM by Allen Hicken   [ updated Mar 31, 2015, 11:28 PM ]

This post is co-authored and cross-posted with Bangkok Pundit.  

In a series of posts we have been examining the potential effects of the electoral reforms being considered by the junta (here, here and here). In recent weeks some of the details have begun to filter out from the CDC and the EC about how the new system will be organized (for details see reports by Matichon (screen shot), ASTV Manager, Bangkok Post, Post Today, and ASTV Manager).

Things could still change, but according to these sources here is what the CDC is proposal is likely to consist of:

1. Mixed-member Proportional System. As anticipated the CDC appears primed to adopt a German-style mixed-member proportional system (see our earlier analysis of MMP here) with 250 constituency seats and between 200-220 list seats.

2. Low/No Thresholds for the Party List. Recent reports seem to suggest that the party list election will either not make use of any threshold, or use a very low threshold of .5% (ASTV Manager). We will take a look at the practical effects of this very low threshold in a future post.

3. 6 regions for the party list. Rather than rely on the same 8 regions used in the 2007 election, the CDC and EC are proposing the creation of 6 new regions for the purposes of the party list election. We focus on these 6 regions in the remainder of this post. 

Table 1 summarized the provincial breakdown by region. The regions are fairly equal in size, with the South the smallest with a population of nearly 10.3 million, and the Upper Central Region is the largest with 11.4 million. The number of constituency seats assigned to each region is largely proportional to their size, as Table 2 shows. This reflects the way constituency seats are awarded. Seats are allocated by province, with one seat for every 260,499 persons. (Click here for a break down of the number of seats per province).
Population data as of end of 2014 obtained from:

The proportionality of the constituency seats across the 6 regions stands in sharp contrast to the way party list tier seats are allocated. Table 3 displays the party list seats by region, as currently proposed. Unlike the relatively fair and equal distribution of constituency seats, the distribution of party list seats is highly malapportioned. This goes against Thailand admirable track record of historically having one of the most fairly proportioned electoral systems in the world (see this post for more details). However, if the reform is put into effect as proposed Thailand’s party list tier would rank as one of the most malapportioned systems in the world.[1]

Figure 1 gives another view of the malapportionment in the party list. Two regions are slated to receive many more seats than their population would warrant—the Upper Central Region and the Lower Northeast. The North, by contrast, receives barely half of the seats one would expect given its population, and the Upper Northeast and Lower Central Regions are under-represented to a lesser degree. In the Upper Central region there is one party list seat for every 228,093 voters, while by contrast, there is one seat for every 580,206 Northern voters. If this proposal is implemented voters in the Upper Central Region will, in effect, count as 2.5 times more valuable than their fellow citizens in the North.

Our next post will look connection between how the party list has been organized and partisan patterns in past and future elections.    

[1] Using Samuels and Snyder’s (2010) malapportionment score the malapportionment score for the party list tier is 12.8%, meaning that nearly 13 percent of the party list tiers are unfairly apportioned.

Constituency Seats by Province (by Allen Hicken and Bangkok Pundit)

posted Mar 31, 2015, 9:07 PM by Allen Hicken   [ updated Mar 31, 2015, 11:31 PM ]

This post is co-authored and cross-posted with Bangkok Pundit.  

According to ASTV Manager and Matichon (article no longer accessible, but  a screenshot is available here), EC sources have said that there will be 255  constituency seats awarded based on population by province, with 1 seat for every 260,499 persons. After rounding that leaves us with the following breakdown:

Norms and Military Interventions, guest post by Jacob I. Ricks

posted Feb 20, 2015, 5:16 AM by Allen Hicken

            On 10 February 2015, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, with his usual candor, told reporters that “Thailand is different from other countries. If something cannot be solved [by the government], the military will solve it.”[1] This statement embodies a number of assumptions, but perhaps most important for Thailand today is the idea that military intervention is a perfectly legitimate method of overcoming political challenges.

            This sentiment rankles many observers, both inside and outside of Thailand. It also raises the old question of civil-military relations, “Why do people with guns obey people without guns?”[2] Responses in both academia and policy circles often draw on Samuel Huntington’s claim that professional soldiers do not engage in politics.[3] Punchada Sirivunnabood and I have tackled this hypothesis in much greater detail elsewhere, demonstrating that the level of professionalism among Thai soldiers is poorly correlated with their desires for an apolitical military.[4] Instead we suggest that the key to a permanently apolitical officer corps may hinge on the development of norms of civilian supremacy over the military. In this blog post I offer some preliminary thoughts on this issue by briefly discussing three indicators of a Thai societal norm justifying military intervention.

First, the Thai military has a long history in politics, which has largely gone unchallenged by society.[5] In January 2014, Punchada and I interviewed ACM Anan Klintha, one of the generals who conducted the 1991 coup in Thailand. He frankly explained that the coup was possible because, “the people believed [in the military], the people obeyed the military, they respected soldiers, it was tradition among Thai people in the past.”[6]

            ACM Anan was not mistaken that Thailand has a long tradition of men in uniform taking part in politics, generally uncontested by the people. If we take a brief look at the history of the Prime Minister’s office, we can see that since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, it has been dominated by both former and active military officials.[7] Out of the 30,168 days from 28 June 1932 through 01 February 2015, the office has been filled by an either active or retired military officer for 66.7 percent of the time (20,131 days). The table below highlights these men in green. Historical precedent certainly favors the idea that Thai people accept military men in politics. 

            Second, we have seen mass mobilization in recent years to push for military intervention. In the same week that Punchada and I interviewed ACM Anan Klintha, protests shut down Bangkok’s streets as Suthep Thaugsuban led supporters on one of his 12 “Final Battles” [8] against the Yingluck Shinawatra government. Protestors against the government called on the military to intervene in politics.[9] Although Suthep initially denied asking for a coup, the repeated requests for the military to side with the protest movement suggested that was his purpose.[10] Later he even claimed to have had long correspondence with military leaders regarding the possibility of a coup.[11] While the protesters who supported Suthep may not have comprised a majority of Thais, their numbers were sufficiently large to signal that at least a significant and vocal minority of Thais support and even desire military interventions.

            This brings us to the third piece of evidence for a norm of military intervention: public opinion. In June-July 2007, the World Values Survey organization carried out its first survey in Thailand, asking 1,534 respondents a variety of questions, including two items which help us identify the strength of support in Thai society for military interventions. First, pollsters asked respondents their feelings on having the army rule. Thais were able to choose one of four responses ranging from “Very Good” to “Very Bad.” A second question also addressed the role of the military in democracy. The researchers asked Thais to identify a series of statements on a scale of one to ten, with a ten meaning the sentence reflected “an essential characteristic of democracy” and a one meaning “not an essential characteristic of democracy.” One of the statements read, “The Army Takes Over When Government is Incompetent,” providing a measure of Thai support for military interventions. This survey was repeated in September 2013 with 1,200 respondents. The figures below present the results.  

World Values Survey Results: Thailand 2007



Source: WORLD VALUES SURVEY Wave 5 2005-2008 OFFICIAL AGGREGATE v.20140429. World Values Survey Association ( 


World Values Survey Results: Thailand 2013



WORLD VALUES SURVEY Wave 6 2010-2014 OFFICIAL AGGREGATE v.20141107. World Values Survey Association ( 

            A few things stand out in these charts. First, beginning in 2007, shortly after the 2006 coup, we can see that a large proportion of Thais did feel positively about military rule. In fact, over half of those who answered the question (53.5 percent) said that having the army rule was either “Very Good” or “Fairly Good.” Many respondents also claimed that army intervention during times of poor government was democratic. 36.8 percent of respondents gave a value of six or above, showing that they felt democracy was compatible with military interventions. This indicates widespread acceptance of military interventions in 2007, only about nine months after the coup against Thaksin Shinawatra.

            Much had changed by late 2013, though. During this round of the survey, respondents overwhelmingly replied that having the army rule was either “Fairly Bad” or “Very Bad.” Among those who answered, 65.3 percent now felt that rule by the armed forces was negative. The biggest loss on the positive side came from the “Fairly Good” category which dropped from 44.1 percent of respondents to less than 24 percent. The “Very Bad” category, on the other hand, shot up from 8 percent to a full 30 percent of respondents. Nevertheless, a significant minority, approximately 35 percent of those who answered the question, still felt military rule was positive.

            Thai views on democracy and the military also shifted. Large gains occurred at either end of the scale with losses occurring in the middle range. The percentage of those who responded at the extreme that army interventions are not democratic doubled from only 8.3 percent in 2007 to 16.6 percent in 2013. The opposite end of the scale, or those who felt army interventions were essential characteristics of democracy, also saw growth from 5.1 percent of respondents in 2007 to 14.2 percent of those who answered in 2013. This indicates that social support for military interventions had grown, but it also now had a stronger opposition.

            These survey results, combined with the historical tradition of military rule and existence of a vocal and mobilized minority who support armed forces interventions, do show that large numbers of Thai people still approve of a political military. We could take this as evidence that a “coup culture,”[12] or norm of military involvement in politics, does hold sway in Thailand. 

The shift between 2007 and 2013 in the WVS numbers, though, suggests that changes are happening among the Thai public. It seems that the military’s 2006 intervention did little to endear it to the hearts and minds of Thais. While many factors were at play during the interceding years, it would appear that the traditional norm of tacit support for military intervention is fading. Increasing polarization of opinions about the role of the military in democracy is also emerging. A norm of civilian supremacy may be evolving among a large sector of the population. If it is, the military will have an increasingly difficult time justifying its continued political role. As ACM Anan Klintha explained, “[if] the majority of the people won’t accept [a coup], then it can’t be done.”[13]

[1] Toru Takahasi, “Thai Leader Pledges to Weed Out Corruption Before Election,” Nikkei Asian Review, 10 February 2015. Accessible:

[2] Stephan Holmes, “Lineages of the Rule of Law,” in Democracy and the Rule of Law, eds. Jose Maria Maravall and Adam Przeworski (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 24.

[3] Samuel P. Huntington, The Soldier and the State (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1957). See also Suzanne Nielsen, “Review Article: American Civil-Military Relations Today: The Continuing Relevance of Samuel P. Huntington’s The Soldier and the State,International Affairs 88(2012): 369-376.

[4] Punchada Sirivunnabood and Jacob Ricks, “Professionals and Soldiers: Measuring Professionalism in the Thai Military,” Working Paper (2015). See also Surachart Bamrungsak, “Thailand: Military Professionalism at the Crossroads,” in Military Professionalism in Asia: Conceptual and Empirical Perspectives, ed. Muthiah Alagappa (Honolulu, HI: East-West Center, 2001), 77-91. also James Ockey, “Thailand’s Professional Soldiers and Coup-Making: The Coup of 2006,” Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 19(2007), 95-127.

[5] Exceptions did occur in 1973 and 1992.

[6] ACM Anan Klintha, interview by authors, Bangkok, 28 January 2014. 

[7] I emphasize that there is a difference between retired and active military officers. Even so, the purpose of the table is merely to indicate the military’s enduring presence in Thailand’s top political office.

[8] In early May 2014, I had counted at least 12 announcements by Suthep of a “Final Battle,” but the number may have been greater.

[9] “Suthep Asks Top Brass To Shield Protesters,” Bangkok Post, 26 January 2014; See also “Protestors Call on Army to Stage ‘Peaceful Coup,’” The Nation, July 11, 2013. 

[10] Voranai Vanijaka, “The Military Holds the Key to Suthep’s Victory, or Defeat,” Bangkok Post, 05 January 2014.

[11] Nauvarat Suksamran, “Suthep in talks with Prayuth ‘Since 2010,’” Bangkok Post, 23 June 2014.  Prayuth vehemently denied that such correspondence occurred.

[12] Nicholas Farrelly, “Why Democracy Struggles: Thailand’s Elite Coup Culture,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67(2013): 281-296.

[13] ACM Anan Klintha, interview by authors, Bangkok, 28 January 2014.

What Do We Know about Open List PR? by Allen Hicken and Bangkok Pundit

posted Jan 21, 2015, 6:00 PM by Allen Hicken   [ updated Jan 21, 2015, 6:07 PM ]

   This post is co-authored and cross-posted with Bangkok Pundit.  Parts one and two of this series can be found here.

   Our last two posts have looked at the effects of a switch to a Mixed-Member Proportional System (MMP) on Thailand’s party system. In this post we consider the proposal to use an Open List Proportional Representation (OLPR) for the party list election, as proposed by the Constitutional Drafting Committee (as outlined in the Nation here and Post Today here (in Thai)). 

 What is OLPR and how does it differ from the previous system?

Since 2001 Thailand has used closed list proportional representation (CLPR) to elect the party list MPs. Under CLPR party leaders present an ordered list of their candidates to voters, and voters vote for the party (or party list) that they most prefer. Parties receive seats proportional to the percentage of votes they receive, and the seats go to the candidates on the party’s list in the order predetermined by party leaders.

Under OLPR voters, not party leaders, determine which candidates from a party’s list win seats. As under CLPR each party prepares an ordered list of its candidates and presents them to voters. (In the system currently under discussion parties would presumably prepare 8 different lists, one for each region).  However, under OLPR voters cast their vote for a candidate on the party’s list.[1] The total number of votes the party’s candidates receive determine how many seats the party receives, but which candidates on the list are awarded those seats depends entirely on the number of individual votes they receive. In other words, OLPR gives voters the ability to “disturb” the party’s list.

To illustrate, consider the following scenarios. A party prepares its party list, and ranks the candidates as shown in column 2 in Table 1. Candidate A is the top-ranked candidate and candidate D is the lowest-ranked candidate. Under CLPR if the party wins only one seat then that seat goes to Candidate A. If the party wins two seats, then candidates A and B get seats, and so forth. But, what if we use OLPR and allow voters to determine which candidates win seats? It might be that voters agree with party leaders and give the most support to Candidate A and the least support to Candidate D (Column 3). Under this scenario the outcome under OLPR would be no different than under CLPR.  However, what if voters instead prefer Candidate D to the other candidates on the party list, as we show in Column 4? Under this scenario if the party wins fewer than 4 seats, Candidate D receives a seat over candidate who are more-highly ranked by the party.

Table 1


Party List Ranking

OLPR votes #1

OLPR votes  #2

Candidate A




Candidate B




Candidate C




Candidate D




 Effects of OLPR

A distinguishing feature of OLPR is intra-party competition. Intra-party competition refers to the extent to which members of the same party must each compete against members of their same party in order to win an election. Under CLPR there is no intra-party competition. A candidate’s chance of getting elected does not depend on how well one does relative to one’s co-partisans. However, under OLPR a candidate must not only campaign against opponents from other parties, a candidate must also try and convince voters to select them instead of candidates from within their own party. This means that party and policy-centered campaign strategies become less valuable to both candidates and parties. (Thailand pre-1997 electoral system, the block vote, had many of the same features).[2]

As a candidate under OLPR it does little good for you to campaign on your party’s policy platform—in the new system there will be 24 other candidates from the same party you are also competing against. You cannot distinguish yourself from your co-partisans competitors by relying on party policies or party reputation. Instead, candidates under OLPR typically try and maximize their own “personal vote-earning attributes.”[3] They develop personal networks of support and work very hard to cultivate a “personal vote” that is distinct from their party affiliation.[4]

So, given these features of OLPR, what do we know about the effects of OLPR on voters, candidates, politicians and parties. Below we summarize some of the findings from the extensive political science literature on OLPR. We provide a list of academic writings for further research at the conclusion of this post.

Freedom for Voters: A chief advantage of OLPR is that it gives voters maximum freedom over who is elected. If voters prefer candidates further down the party list then they have the ability to “disturb” that list, even over the objections of party leaders. OLPR, then, could give voters a chance to elect fresh, new faces over established party leaders. Advocates of OLPR also argue that it will help reduce the influence of wealthy individuals within parties by putting more power in the hands of voters. For, example, Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, an Assistant Rector at Thammasat University, whose testimony to the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) on MMP appears to be an influential in persuading the CDC to adopt the OLPR, was quoted by Krungthep Turakit as saying that using OLPR (ระบบบัญชีเปิด) would allow the voters to choose the MPs themselves which would help solve the problems of influence from party financiers.[5]

Autonomy for Candidates: Another reasons some prefer OLPR to CLPR is that it gives politicians more autonomy from party leaders. Under OLPR popular candidates can still win election even if party leaders refuse to rank them high on the party list. The fact that they owe their election to their personal attributes and networks of support gives them additional autonomy. OLPR, combined with the permitting of independent candidates under the next constitution, means that party members are much less accountable to and have much less to fear from party leaders. 

Weaker parties: OLPR tends to undermine the strength, cohesiveness and importance of political parties. First, as discussed above, OLPR weakens the leverage party leaders have over party members, resulting in parties that are less cohesive and less disciplined than is typically the case in closed list systems. Second, OLPR undermines the importance of party label and party reputation for all political actors. Voters cannot use party label as cue to decide between competition co-partisans under OLPR. Candidates, as already discussed, must emphasize candidate-centered over party-centered strategies. Politicians and party leaders have fewer incentives to invest in and protect the party label since the party’s collective reputation is only a minor part of winning elections.

Greater localism: OLPR tends to encourage the development of local bases of support for politicians and candidates. These local bailiwicks provide voters with someone to turn to in times of trouble, and induce politicians to be more concerned with responding to the needs and demands of their local support base than responding to national policy matters or party priorities.

Money politics: A consistent theme in the academic work on OLPR is that such systems tend to be associated with a much higher prevalence of money politics, especially compared to closed list systems. OLPR raises the costs associated with campaigning as candidates must rely on resources other than the party label and policy promises to woo voters and construct personal support networks. The attention to cultivating local bailiwicks leads to an emphasis on patronage strategies such as vote-buying and delivering pork and other goodies to local constituencies. The focus on patronage corresponds with a de-emphasis of national policy matters. Finally, a number of studies link OLPR with higher levels of corruption.[6] In a recent paper Professor Joel Johnson explains the link between OLPR and corruption this way:

[O]pen-list systems also tend to fragment legislatures, weaken parties, and place a premium on particularistic policy and campaign finance—outcomes that can multiply corruption opportunities, elevate corruption incentives, and hinder the provision of anti-corruption institutions.[7]

Lessons from Indonesia. Thailand could learn a lot from its neighbor to the South, Indonesia. In 2009 a ruling by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court transformed mandated the switch to OLPR in all elections. The parallels are striking. The arguments some in Thailand are advancing in favor of OLPR are the same as those we heard in Indonesia several years ago. The switch has had enormous consequences in terms of how politics and campaigns are organized in Indonesia. What has happened in Indonesia foreshadows what Thailand can likely expect if it follows the same path. In an October 2014 article in the Journal of Democracy, ANU Prof Ed Aspinall summarized the effects of OLPR on Indonesian elections and democracy. His conclusion is worth quoting at length.

In the mid-2000s, reformers urged the adoption of an open-list system precisely in order to remedy “money politics.” The closed list, they argued, meant that elected representatives were truly accountable only to party leaders rather than to voters, and this system encouraged collusion and corruption that was inimical to democracy. A few months before the 2009 election, the Constitutional Court decided to move to a fully open list. Although many anticorruption activists and other liberals who had been critical of the parties welcomed the decision, the open list has taught a salutary lesson about the unintended effects of electoral reform (though many of the consequences could have been readily predicted by electoral-system experts).

Of the negative consequences for Indonesian democracy, several stand out. First, the open list has broadened the scope of money politics. Though other forms of political corruption have not disappeared, patronage has now become a major mechanism binding ordinary voters to candidates. Viewed positively, this shift has democratized corruption somewhat, so that many ordinary Indonesians view election time as a welcome opportunity to supplement their incomes with electoral bribes and broker fees. The negative impact, including the further propagation and institutionalization of a culture of corruption, is obvious.

Second, the incentive to cultivate a personal vote has exacerbated the fundraising imperative for individual candidates and legislators. Many candidates who win elections do so by amassing large personal debts. Many repay these debts by engaging in corruption, or by seeking sponsorship from businesspeople whom they later have to provide with favors. As a result, the electoral system is intensifying the corruption that most observers agree poses the greatest long-term threat to Indonesian democracy, leaving the entire system vulnerable to authoritarian-populist challenges such as that of Prabowo.

Third, by providing legislators with an incentive to develop a personal vote, the open-list system shifts their attention away from nationally important but electorally unrewarding tasks of policy development. Thus some DPR members who lost their seats in 2014 were among those who had been most active in national policy debates. Some of those who survived now express a desire to abandon DPR commissions that offer no means of providing patronage to constituents (the foreign-relations commission, for example) in order to join others (such as infrastructure and agriculture) that do.

Finally, the open list also poses a long-term threat to the coherence of the party system. Not only has the open list increased competition within parties, it has elevated the importance of personal networks over party machines. As a result, differences between the parties have significantly eroded, even if some remain rooted in distinctive cultural communities. Certainly, at the grassroots level candidates from the various parties and their approaches are becoming increasingly indistinguishable; candidates often barely mention their parties when explaining their electoral strategies. The dramatic political polarization that occurred after the legislative elections during the run-up to the July presidential election shows that this disengagement from partisan politics does not flow from deep features of Indonesian society, but is a product of the electoral system.[8]


A final note. One of the purported advantages of mixed member systems is the balance they strike between attention to local concerns and connections versus party policies and national priorities. This is accomplished by combining the election of constituency MPs with the closed-list PR elections for party list seats. This is the norm in virtually every other mixed member system in the world. Thailand’s proposed change to OLPR would be a unique departure from this norm and likely undermine this balance. In the end, switching to OLPR removes much of the rationale for having a mixed member system in the first place.

Further Reading 

·      Barry Ames, Electoral strategy under open-list proportional representation. American Journal of Political Science 39 (2) (1995), 406–433.

·      Barry Ames,  “Electoral Rules, Constituency Pressures, and Pork Barrel: Bases of Voting in the Brazilian Congress,” Journal of Politics, 57 (May 1995), 324-43.

·      Bruce Cain, John Ferejohn and Morris Fiorina, The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

·      John M. Carey and Matthew S. Shugart, “Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas,” Electoral Studies, 14 (December 1995), 417-39.

·      Barbara Geddes and Artur Ribeiro Neto, “Institutional Sources of Corruption in Brazil,” Third World Quarterly, 13 (October 1992), 641-61.

·      Miriam Golden, “Electoral Connections: The Effects of the Personal Vote on Political Patronage, Bureaucracy and Legislation in Postwar Italy,” British Journal of Political Science, 33 (April 2003) 189-212.

·      Miriam A. Golden and Eric C. C. Chang, “Competitive Corruption: Factional Conflict and Political Malfeasance in Postwar Italian Christian Democracy,” World Politics, 53 (July 2001) 588-622.

·      Allen Hicken, “How Do Rules and Institutions Encourage Vote Buying?” in Frederic C. Schaffer, ed., Democracy for Sale: The Causes, Consequences, and Reform of Vote Buying (Boulder: Lynne Rienner  2007), pp. 47-60.

·      Allen Hicken, “How Effective are Institutional Reforms?” in Frederic C. Schaffer, ed., Democracy for Sale: The Causes, Consequences, and Reform of Vote Buying (Boulder: Lynne Rienner  2007).

·      Richard Katz, “Intraparty preference voting,” in Bernard Grofman and Arend Lijphart, eds., Electoral Laws and Their Political Consequences (New York: Agathon, 1986), pp. 85-103.

·      Jonathan GS Koppell and Jennifer A. Steen, “The Effects of Ballot Position on Election Outcomes,” Journal of Politics, 66 (February 2004), 267-281.

·      David Samuels, “Incentives to Cultivate a Party Vote in Candidate-Centric Electoral Systems: Evidence from Brazil,” Comparative Political Studies, 32 (June 1999), 487-518.

·      David Samuels, “When Does Every Penny Count?: Intra-Party Competition and Campaign Finance in Brazil,” Party Politics, 7 (January 2001), p.91.

·      Matthew. S. Shugart, Melody Ellis Valdini, and Kati Suominen, “Looking For Locals: Voter Information Demands And Personal Vote-Earning Attributes Of Legislators Under Proportional Representation.” American Journal of  Political Science 49 (2) (2005), 437–449.

·      Carmen Ortega Villodres, “Intra-Party Competition under Preferential List Systems: The Case of Finland,” Representation, 40 (November 2003), 55—66.

[1] In some OLPR systems voters are required to vote for a candidate, while in others have a choice of whether to vote a party or and individual candidate. As of this writing we don’t know whether candidate voting will be an option or a requirement.

[2] Allen Hicken, “How Effective are Institutional Reforms?” in Frederic C. Schaffer, ed., Democracy for Sale: The Causes, Consequences, and Reform of Vote Buying (Boulder: Lynne Rienner  2007).

[3] Shugart, Matthew. S., Ellis Valdini, Melody, and Suominen, Kati, 2005. Looking For Locals: Voter Information Demands And Personal Vote-Earning Attributes Of Legislators Under Proportional Representation. American Journal of  Political Science 49 (2), 437–449.

[4] Carey, John M., Shugart, Matthew S., 1995. Incentives to cultivate a personal vote: a rank ordering of electoral formulas. Electoral Studies 14 (4), 417–439.

[5] The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) has also argued that closed party lists enable party financiers to buy their way into the list. For example, Chumpol Julasai, a former PDRC leader (and Democrat MP) is quoted by Daily News as saying that he opposed MMP and wanted only constituency MPs as this will prevent party financiers from buying their way into the party-list.

[6] For a more complicated account of the link between OLPR and corruption see Daniel W. Gingerich, “Ballot Structure, Political Corruption and the Performance of Proportional Representation.”

[7] Joel W. Johnson, “Electoral Systems and Political Corruption.” (August 1, 2014). Available at SSRN: or

[8] Edward Aspinall. "Parliament and Patronage." Journal of Democracy 25.4 (2014): pp. 108-109..

1-10 of 21