Thoughts on a Directly Elected Prime Minister
by Allen Hicken
Picture: Seal of the Prime Minister of Thailand
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Recently some within the NRC have proposed that Thailand switch to a system of directly electing the Prime Minister. This opens up two possibilities, depending on the relationship between the government and the legislature:
1) If the government and legislature continue to be jointly dependent on each other (i.e. the parliament can remove the prime minister via a vote of no confidence and the prime minister can dissolve parliament) then Thailand would essentially be re-running the Israeli experiment that was begun in 1996 and, having been deemed a failure, was then abandoned in 2001 after only three elections.
2) If the survival government and parliament are independent of each other (i.e. each sits for a fixed term) then Thailand would be functionally adopting a presidential system. We might still call the executive “Prime Minister”, and Thailand would certainly still have the King has head of state, but in all other respects this system would be a presidential system and we would expect it to function like one.
When evaluating a proposed reform it is useful to begin with two questions: 1) what problem is the reform trying to fix, and 2) how would the proposed reform fix that problem? Advocates for a directly elected prime minister have yet to publically explain what they hope to accomplish with this reform. However, there are reasons to be wary. Three concerns often expressed by critics of Thailand’s previous democratic system are: 1) the prime minister/government was too powerful vis-à-vis the parliament; 2) the power of the majority party was unchecked by opposition parties (the so-called parliamentary dictatorship); 3) the prime minister had become too powerful, posing a threat to the institution of the monarchy. A directly elected prime minister would not fix any of these problems, and would likely make some of them worse.
There is a good deal of work that we can draw on to anticipate what a directly elected prime minister would mean for Thailand. Drawing on the work of Samuel and Shugart (2010), Golder (2005), and Hicken and Stoll (2013) we would expect the following.
More conflict between the government and the parliament. The prime minister, directly elected from a national electorate will face very different incentives from members of the legislature and thus we expect more conflict between the two branches, particularly when different parties control each branch.
Presidentialized parties. Directly elected executives produce different kinds of parties than we find in pure parliamentary systems. First, in directly elected systems there is more power and discretion given to the party leader (the candidate for executive office) and fewer intra-party checks and balances on that leader. Second, relatedly, parties in directly elected systems tend to be weak organizationally and have less of a mass base.
Executives as the national focal point: Where the chief executive is directly elected the executive office tends to become the focal point of the political system and the brightest star on the political stage.
Fewer and larger parties. Because direct election of the executive tends to focus elections on competition for that office, those parties that can field credible candidates for the executive dominate the elections, including elections for the legislature. As a result we tend to see fewer, more nationalized parties where there are direct elections for the executive.
Greater winner-take-all. A directly elected prime minister produces a system that is more winner-take-all than under a pure parliamentary system. This happens in two ways. First, direct executive elections tend to reduce the number of parties. Second, directly elected prime ministers do not require a majority support of parliament to gain power. This means that an executive candidate who conceivably wins much less than a majority, and whose party controls much less than a majority in parliament, can none-the-less capture total control of the government.
Golder, Matt. 2006. "Presidential Coattails and Legislative Fragmentation." American Journal of Political Science 50 (1): 34—48.
Hicken, Allen and Heather Stoll. 2013. “Are all President’s Created Equal?” Presidential Powers and the Shadow of Presidential Elections.” Comparative Political Studies 14(3): 291-319.
Samuels, David and Matthew Soberg Shugart (2010) Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers. New York: Cambridge University Press