Doing right by voters

Two new election rules recently proposed by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) sound ripe for controversy even before they are implemented.

One concerns the termination of a voting practice in which MP candidates and their political parties share the same ballot number. The other proposes a new two-year ban on eligible voters who did not vote in previous general elections.

Both demonstrate just how out-of-touch this military-appointed panel is with the reality on the ground and the people they are supposed to serve.

Under the bill governing general elections, the CDC suggests the number for poll candidates in each constituency should be determined by drawing lots. That means candidates from the same party who run for different constituencies would get different numbers.

When voters hit the polling stations next year -- if the general election takes place as planned -- they will likely find the new system confusing while also bearing the burden of having to remember the number of the candidate of the party they want to vote for.

CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan insisted the "new" system is aimed at deterring vote-buying. In trying to solve the problem by applying the old ballot system to current times, the CDC is creating much confusion.

But his reasoning comes as a slap in the face to voters. It insults their powers of judgement.

Several studies show that vote-buying no longer exists on the scale it did a few decades ago. Voters' behaviour and attitudes have changed. With greater access to education and information, people focus more now on the policies that are being offered by political parties. No matter how poor they are, or how rural their habitat, they have shown they voted for political parties that offer public policies which serve their needs.

A case in point would be the consecutive electoral victories enjoyed by the now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra, and its reincarnations that have offered and delivered what critics call "populist policies".

To many people, including politicians, academics and a former election commissioner who came out to criticise the CDC's plan, this ballot system will weaken the political party system, which goes against the grain of the current constitution.

Another proposal that has drawn public ire is the idea of punishing those who do not vote in general elections. The bill proposed they be given a two-year ban from voting or taking positions in public offices. This penalty violates their right to vote. People have their own reasons for not voting, or being unable to visit polling stations, and they should be respected. This punishment is unnecessarily harsh and will not promote participatory democracy.

Under the new constitution drafted by the CDC, Thailand faces the prospect of being ruled by a semi-democratic system for at least five years following the first general election. Some 250 senators will be handpicked by the National Council for Peace and Order, making the upper house a mere representation of the military regime. The option of having a non-MP candidate chosen as prime minister will also be offered. The 20-year national strategy, which is still being drafted by the regime, will also require new governments to follow its pre-determined directions.

As the new government will have to function under these circumstances, the new ballot system can minimise the chance of having any party that wins a majority victory go on to form an unstable coalition government.

The voting process should make it easy for voters to exercise their right to cast a ballot. The National Legislative Assembly and the government, which will vet the bill, must take this into account.


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