Interview with Dr. Prinya Thaewanarumitkul
Dr. Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, Vice Rector of Thammasat University
On 17 April 2015 the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) of Thailand officially proposed in its Draft Constitution the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) election system based on the German model as the new election system for Thailand under the new constitution in the making. Shortly before, from 15-20 March 2015 a Thai delegation, headed by CDC Chairman Dr. Bowornsak Uwanno, visited Germany to study the German Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) election system. Among the members of the delegation was Dr. Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, Vice Rector of Thammasat University, who received his Dr. jur. from Göttingen University in Germany with a dissertation on a comparison between political parties in Germany and in Thailand. CPG had the opportunity to talk to him about the trip and the insights gained for the reform of the Thai election system.
Vice-Rector Prinya, what was the background of the trip to Germany in March?
I was approached by the German Embassy in January and asked to provide information about the ongoing constitution drafting process in Thailand and the discussion on a possible adoption of the German MMP election system. At this meeting the idea came up to organize a visit of a delegation to Germany to deepen the understanding of the German election system and its functioning within a constitutional system of checks and balances for a possible adoption in the new constitution. Eventually, a trip to Berlin and Karlsruhe could be arranged for 15-20 of March for a group of nine, headed by Prof. Dr. Borwornsak Uwanno, Chairman of the Constitutional Drafting Committee, and further comprising members of the Constitutional Drafting Committee, the National Reform Council, and the Election Commission. I was joining the delegation as an external expert and advisor as I am not affiliated with the mentioned institutions.
There are several aspects to mention with regards to this question. First of all, we consider the previous election systems under the Constitutions of 1997 and 2007 as one of the main causes for the disappointing democratic development in Thailand because they enabled majority situations in the House of Representatives to establish a government ruling beyond parliamentary control, like the one under former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Second, we are aware of the impressive historical development of Germany from the Nazi-dictatorship under Adolf Hitler to one of the most stable and effective democracies in the world with a strong parliamentary system. We believe that the German election system has played a most vital role in this “success story” ever since it was adopted in 1949. Finally, if we compare countries across the world with parliamentary systems based on MMP elections, Germany comes closest to Thailand with regards to the size of population. This is relevant for the technical administration of elections and was therefore another factor for us to turn our attention towards Germany.
What was the aim of the trip?
Our goal was to explore in what way the German election system precisely contributes to a strong parliament within an effective system of checks and balances so that it is possible to prevent an overwhelmingly strong and un-controllable executive power. For that purpose we visited the relevant institutions and held discussions with relevant persons. Among them were members of the Bundestag and Bundesrat from all represented political parties, members of various related committees, the Federal Returning Officer and, last but not least, Constitutional Court Judge Peter Müller.
In the bicameral system in Germany the national legislature is made up of the Bundestag and the Bundesrat. The former consists of delegates elected by the people every four years, the latter of representatives of the governments of the 16 federal states. (Remark of the editor)
What are the main insights gained from those meetings and talks?
One of the most important insights is that with regards to the distribution of seats in the parliament the German MMP election mirrors the votes of the people. Votes will not be “lost” or “wasted” like in a majoritarian, first-past-the-post system. Every individual vote counts. The result of this is another aspect which was highly interesting to the delegation. Ever since the first parliamentary election in 1949, Germany have always been ruled by coalition governments. The German election system creates the need to build coalitions between political parties to form the parliamentary majority backing the government. There has never been one single political party to form the government on its own and to dominate the parliament. A third main insight drawn from the trip lies in the functioning of the German Constitutional Court. We have been especially impressed by the independence and impartiality of Judges of the Constitutional Court. Although they belong to political parties and although one half of the total number of judges are elected by an election committee consisting of party-affiliated members of the Bundestag and one half by the Bundesrat they uphold legal professionalism and standards in their adjudication for which they generally enjoy high esteem throughout the German population. In this regard, the remarks of Constitutional Court Judge Müller whom we met in at the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe provided a clear picture of a well-functioning system of checks and balances among the state organs in Germany as laid down in German constitution and of the important role the Constitutional Court plays therein. It is my wish for Thailand that we can reform our Constitutional Court in terms of the independence of the judges in the direction of the German model, similar to the election system.
To what extent is the election system proposed in the Draft Constitution reflecting the German model?
In principle it does so. The Draft Constitution adopts the German MMP election system with one vote for candidates on constituency basis and one vote for candidates on party lists of six regions. But there are also some differences to take not of. First, the proposed election system does not have an election threshold, unlike the German counter-part with a 5% threshold. Another deviation is the open party list.
Voters will have the opportunity voice their preferences and to rank the candidates of a party list by themselves. Third, not only members of political parties but also members of so-called political groups are eligible to run for election. The purpose of this invention is to provide a possibility to recruit members of the House of Representatives from outside the political parties.
How do you in general assess the Draft Constitution?
With regards to the issue of the election system I am satisfied with the adoption of the German MMP system in the Draft Constitution and confident that this can contribute to a stronger parliamentary system in Thailand. The only aspect I consider worth further consideration in this regard is the introduction of an election threshold to avoid a fragmentation of the House of Representatives. A further aspect of concern for me is the system of checks and balances. The Draft Constitution foresees the establishment of what I would call a “hybrid system” of checks and balances. By that I mean that besides the classical trias politica of the executive, legislative and judicial branch mutually controlling each other the Draft Constitution installs a great number of non-elected elite institutions with competencies to monitor and supervise democratically legitimized state organs. To my understanding this institutional structure reflects a prevailing distrust against democratic politics and procedures. In this regard I see only little chance that the Draft Constitution – should it remain unchanged – will receive the consent of the majority of the people in a referendum which in my view should be held in order to provide the necessary legitimacy and stability for the new constitution to come.
Thank you very much for the interview, Vice Rector Prinya.
The interview was conducted by Dr. Duc Quang Ly, CPG Project Manager; Picture by Siraprapa Chalermphao, CPG Office Manager