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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..