Can new Senate escape old stigma?

Can new Senate escape old stigma?

Despite EC confidence in election process, fears of corruption remain

With the term of the current set of 250 appointed senators set to end in May, political pundits and politicians are hoping that the election of a new 200-member Upper House will bring a breath of fresh air to Thai politics.

However, some remain concerned the prospects of vote-buying, election manipulation, lobbying, and applicants' affiliations with parties and influential figures might result in a new batch of senators who are not so different from the previous members of parliament's upper house.

The nation is gearing up to elect 200 senators to succeed the 250-member chamber appointed by the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

The regulations regarding the elections, signed by Itthiporn Boonpracong, chairman of the Election Commission (EC), were published in the Royal Gazette on Feb 15.

The five-year term of the junta-appointed senators will expire on May 11, but they will carry on until the new Senate assumes office.

According to the 2017 charter, the new Senate will comprise 200 members and will not be directly elected by the public. The applicants will vote among themselves.

They will be selected from 20 different professional groups, with 10 seats available for each group.

There will also be a reserve list of five candidates in each group.

The elections will be held at the district, provincial and national levels in a process designed to keep political interference at bay.

Unlike the NCPO-appointed Senate, the new Senate will not be allowed to co-elect a prime minister but will retain the power to endorse appointments to independent public agencies.

The election dates for the three levels will be announced within five days of a royal decree on the specifics of the process taking effect.

Applications must start within 15 days after the decree takes effect.

After the application process closes, district-level elections will simultaneously be held nationwide within 20 days.

The provincial-level elections will simultaneously take place within seven days of the district-level elections, and the national-level elections must be held within 10 days of that.

Complex calculations

At least 100,000 people are expected to seek election to the Senate in a process dubbed by the national poll body as the most complex in the world.

Election Commission (EC) chairman Itthiporn Boonpracong said the election to pick 200 Upper House members from a range of professional groups is expected to attract at least 100,000 applicants.

The EC has invited qualified individuals to run for a Senate seat.

Candidacy applications will start within 15 days after a royal decree is issued to hold a Senate election. Candidacy registration will last five to seven days.

Once registration ends, the intra-professional group election will be scheduled within 20 days.

After an intra-group election at the district level, five applicants with the highest number of votes in each group will proceed to an inter-group election where they will be voted by applicants from other randomised professional groups, which will shortlist the applicants to three per group, or 60 across 20 groups in a district.

When multiplied by 928 districts nationwide, there will be 55,680 district-level applicants who will enter the provincial race.

The intra-group and inter-group elections will repeat at the provincial and national levels.

At the provincial level, the 55,680 applicants will be shortlisted to two per group or 40 across 20 groups in each province, or 3,080 applicants across 77 provinces nationwide.

At the national level, the 3,080 applicants will go into intra-group and inter-group elections. Ten applicants with the highest number of votes in each group or 200 across 20 groups will become senators.

Vote-manipulation concerns

Responding to concerns the Senate voting methods will benefit those already in power and influential individuals with money and political connections, EC secretary-general Sawang Boonmee told the Bangkok Post the EC will try to ensure the new set of senators will all be experts in their respective fields.

"We have been informed that efforts will be made to lobby for or buy votes, and we must find ways to prevent that. The EC must set up a network to monitor them [the candidates] with the help of the public and media,'' he said.

''If the people want decent and capable individuals to become senators, they must come forward to help.

"If we let anyone control the 200 senators, this means they will seize control of the country as the senators have the power to endorse members of independent agencies. The government also needs their support or endorsement for legislative bills,'' Mr Sawang said.

Sawang: 'All will be experts in their respective fields'

But Thanaporn Sriyakul, director of the Political and Public Policy Analysis Institute, said that while some influential figures may be able to manipulate the outcome of the intra-group election, they will find it difficult to do so in the inter-group election, where applicants are voted for by other randomised professional groups.

Moreover, the presence of more applicants will increase the number of voters (because the applicants are the voters themselves), making it more difficult for those in power to rig the outcome in their favour.

"The more applicants, the harder it will be for those political groups to achieve their aim. They will have to pay substantial sums of money [to buy votes], but it will not worth the money because the outcome cannot be manipulated,'' Mr Thanaporn said.

"The EC must have mechanisms to monitor the Senate elections at all district, provincial and national levels, as well as on social media platforms. This will be a new challenge for the poll agency.

He also noted the election of the new Senate is intended to choose representatives of professional groups, not provincial representatives. Therefore, some provinces may not have a single senator, he said.

The Senate election is expected to be a hotly-contest race as the new senators will retain its role in 2endorsing members of independent agencies, he said.

Thanaporn: New system will be hard to rig

Chusak Sirinil, a deputy Pheu Thai Party leader and list MP, told the Bangkok Post that the new Senate voting method is intended to keep political interference at bay.

"But whether the new method will work remains to be seen,'' he said.

However, he said he was concerned that applicants who are influential figures with broad connections and financial resources will have an advantage as they may influence other applicants to vote for them.

"Those with financial resources and connections will have an advantage. Can the EC prevent such vote manipulation?'' he said.

He added that he would prefer the senators to be directly elected by the public, though in the past, such directly-election senators were thought to have affiliations with political parties.

Chusak: Rich still have advantage under new rules

Political interference?

Senator Wanchai Sornsiri told the Bangkok Post that he believed the new Senate voting system would ensure the new batch of senators would be more independent than the present, appointed group.

Asked whether they will be free of political influence, he said that even though applicants running for a Senate seat are not permitted to be members of parties, they still have the right to a personal preference for the party of their choice.

If those applicants are elected into the Senate, parties must be careful not to boss them around as this will breach the law and the ethical code for holders of political office, Mr Wanchai said.

Members of political parties and public servants are barred from running for Senate seats, while those who were in public office must wait five years before they can apply.

In terms of vote-buying, Mr Wanchai said that although it may occur at the district and provincial levels, it will be difficult at the national level as no campaigning will be allowed.

Wanchai: 'Senators have their own opinions too'

Teerajchai Phunthumas, a Move Forward Party MP for Bangkok, told the Bangkok Post that the new Senate voting system is still flawed as some applicants can influence other applicants to vote for them.

According to Mr Teerajchai, the voting system does not represent the people's mandate, and the powers of the new Senate are not much different from those of the appointed senators.

"The constitution should be amended to allow senators to be directly elected by the people. If they are elected directly by the people, they can have as much power as the law allows,'' Mr Teerajchai said.

Teerajchai: Wants to see public vote for senators

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