Over the past few months I have been working on a paper about local electoral culture in northern Thailand. The paper is based on fieldwork I have undertaken in the village of Baan Tiam. The basic aim of the paper is to challenge the negative portrayals of rural electoral behavior that have been used to help justify the 2006 coup (and earlier coups). I argue that the preoccupation with “vote buying” obscures the reality of local political values that form a basis for electoral decisions.

I have now completed a first draft of the paper. The potential publishers of the paper would prefer that I don’t post it to New Mandala in full, so over the next week or so I will post some extracts and summaries which should provide a reasonable idea about the argument and the nature of the data I draw on. Comments, critique and suggestions are very welcome.

For New Mandala readers I will start with the conclusion:

Over the past few decades Thailand has been afflicted by what McCargo (2006) has called a “disease” of “permanent constitutionalism.” Enormous energies have been devoted to developing constitutional provisions that will provide the appropriate balance between royalist, military, corporate and civil society interests. For many, the holy grail of constitutional drafting seems to be a form of democracy where an appropriately constrained expression of electoral will is combined with a continued elite hold on key processes of government. Since the 2006 coup, Thailand has entered yet another round of constitutional drafting intent on avoiding a return to the “tyranny of the majority” that emerged from the 1997 charter.

In response to this constitutional obsession, historian and public intellectual Nidhi Eoseewong (2003) wrote in 1991 about Thailand’s “cultural constitution.” In contrast to the formal written charters, that are so easily set aside by coup-makers, the cultural constitution reflects the more enduring “ways of life, ways of thinking, and values” that underpin the key institutions in Thailand’s political life. While ultimate “power” resides with the sacred monarch, Thailand’s cultural constitution holds that rulers are constrained by other forms of “influence.” The informal provisions of the cultural constitution mean that “there is compromise between government officials and influence at all levels.” Local leaders have influence, as does the military and members of parliament (even if they are asleep when votes are taken). Power is also constrained by “morality” at least to the extent that “external manifestations of morality” provide a basis for the public’s evaluation of legitimate power. Influence and morality are also “sacred institutions.” For Nidhi, this “cultural constitution” is much more important than any written document in accounting for the underlying rationale of Thai political life.

In this paper I have sought to document a rather different type of cultural constitution, a “rural constitution” that provides a basis for the judgements about legitimate, and illegitimate, political power in electoral contexts. This rural constitution is embedded in the everyday politics of discussion, gossip and debate about the personal attributes of leaders, resource allocation, development projects and administrative competence. It is an important cultural domain where the everyday politics of village life spills over into the more formal arena of electoral contest. The rural constitution is an unwritten constitution made of numerous informal provisions, but they can be usefully grouped under three main headings: a common preference for local candidates; an expectation that candidates will support their electorate; and an emerging emphasis on strong and transparent administration. But, as I have sought to demonstrate, these various elements are refracted in complex and sometimes contradictory ways and do not provide a ready template for political decision making. Rather they provide a broad framework in which local political evaluation can take place. [In later posts I will provide much more detail about the various components of the “rural constitution”]

In proposing this rural constitution I want to avoid creating a mirror image of the negative portrayals of rural electoral behaviour with which I started this paper. It would be ludicrous to argue that all rural electors are careful and rational decision makers who painstakingly assess candidates against a range of clearly defined criteria. Mrs Priaw told me that she votes for Thaksin because she does not know who else to support. Miss Noi goes to vote because her parents and relatives tell her to; but she votes informal because she does not know any of the candidates. And Num, a young government employee, was a member of Thai Rak Thai but was not sure why because he did not get any personal benefits. As in any electoral system there are a good number of people who vote (or not) on the basis of disinterest, disengagement or disillusionment.

Nor do I intend to deny that “vote buying” and party canvassers (hua khanaen) have any influence on electoral behaviour in Baan Tiam or elsewhere in rural Thailand. But I do insist that these specific institutions need to be placed in the much broader context of everyday political values. On vote buying there are several key issues to consider. First, while there are varying reports about the extent of vote buying in Thailand during the Thaksin era there is reason to believe that some of the constitutional reforms of 1997 may have decreased its potency (Croissant and Pojar 2005, 2006). With a well supervised secret ballot at village level and a combined count at electorate level there is little opportunity for candidates to determine if particular distributions of cash have been effective. Second, it is clear that most major parties are involved in distribution of cash to voters, though there are indications that this has become somewhat less blatant in recent years. As I have indicated, in Baan Tiam during the 2005 election campaign the common view was that, locally, the opposition Mahachon was somewhat more liberal in this respect than Thai Rak Thai. The key point is that many voters will accept money from whoever is willing to give it out. Even I was a little shocked when one of Thai Rak Thai’s key local canvassers told me that she had earned 300 baht from attending a Mahachon meeting. Her only regret was that I had not driven her there, in which case she would have got an additional 200 for vehicle expenses! Third, cash distributed by candidates means fundamentally different things in different contexts–it is subject to evaluation and critique within the broad framework provided by the rural constitution (see also Nishizaki 2005: 186-187). As Goldman (2001: 172) has argued in relation to local elections in Brazil, there is a need to appreciate the “pluralisation of meanings” associated with the practice of “vote buying.” To interpret it universally as a commoditised purchase of a vote is a gross simplification. There are, indeed, many interpretations, not the least of which is the pragmatic view that attendance at meetings should be financially rewarded (what one village refers to as the settakhit prachum–the meeting economy). And, fourth, part of the array of local meanings is that vote buying is a corrupt practice closely related to the exercise of inappropriate influence. The critique of vote buying is far from confined to urban elites, but it is now a standard component of the language of local political critique and electionerring is subject to diverse forms of local scrutiny.

Some comments about the influence of hua khanaen are also warranted. In Baan Tiam local political canvassers do not escape the scrutiny of the rural constitution. For example, in Baan Tiam one of the key Thai Rak Thai canvassers was widely regarded as a man who “talked too much, a lot of it rubbish.” His somewhat dubious leadership status was underlined when, in late 2004, he was dumped as head of one of the village main irrigation group given his inattention to the smooth running of the system (largely because his own fields lay at the head of the irrigation canal). The other key Thai Rak Thai canvasser suffered a major setback not long before the 2005 election as a result of her alleged mismanagement of a local development project. When village members ended up having to pay 500 baht each to salvage the project, her reputation nosedived. “She works hard for the community” one woman commented “but she is hopeless with money.” A second key point to note is that these canvassers are socially embedded in complex and overlapping networks of relationships. There is no neat hierarchy of political patrons and vote-offering clients. Rather, there is a “diverse society of ill joined actors” (Kerkvliet and Mojares 1991: 10) in which “personal connections often tug in different directions” (Kerkvliet 1991: 235). Gluckman’s (1955) classic analysis of “custom and conflict in Africa” shows how a complex network of conflicting loyalties prevents feuds degenerating into outright conflict. In the same way, rural voters in Thailand find themselves linked in multiple ways with local figures on all sides of political contests. There is no ready-made social basis for political mobilisation into clearly defined electoral entourages. In this socially complex environment, the rural constitution is drawn upon to provide an informal framework for specific electoral allegiances.

The Thaksin government was elected because a majority of voters considered that Thai Rak Thai candidates and policies best matched their values for political leadership. Often the match was imperfect but, on balance, Thai Rak Thai was the most attractive alternative on offer. This electoral decision was swept away in a wave of urban protest which culminated in the sabotaged election of April 2006 and the coup of September 2006. Coup supporters and constitutional alchemists have sought to delegitimse Thaksin’s electoral support by alleging that it is based on the financially fuelled mobilisation of an easily lead and ill informed rural mass. This erasure of the everyday political values contained in what I have called the rural constitution represents a much more fundamental threat to Thailand’s democracy than the tearing up of the 1997 charter.

Bibliography [for this section only]

Croissant, Aurel, and Daniel J. Pojar. 2005. Quo vaids Thailand? Thai politics after the 2005 parliamentary election. Strategic Insights 4 (6).

–––. 2006. The parliamentary election in Thailand, February 2005. Electoral Studies 25:184-191.

Gluckman, Max. 1955. Custom and conflict in Africa. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Goldman, Marcio. 2001. An ethnographic theory of democracy. Politics form the viewpoint of Ilheus’s black movement (Bahia, Brazil). Ethnos 66 (2):157-180.

Kerkvliet, Benedict J. Tria. 1991. Understanding politics in a Neuva Ecija rural community. In From Marcos to Aquino: local perspectives on political transition in the Philippines, edited by B. J. T. Kerkvliet and R. B. Mojares. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Kerkvliet, Benedict J. Tria, and Resil B. Mojares. 1991. Themes in the transition from Marcos to Aquino: an introduction. In From Marcos to Aquino: local perspectives on political transition in the Philippines, edited by B. J. T. Kerkvliet and R. B. Mojares. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

McCargo, Duncan. 2006. The 19 September 2006 coup – preliminary thoughts on the implications for the future directions of Thai politics, 12 October 2006, at Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Nidhi, Eoseewong. 2003. The Thai cultural constitution. Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia 3.

Nishizaki, Yoshinori. 2005. The moral origin of Thailand’s provincial strongman: the case of Banharn Silpa-archa. South East Asia Research 13 (2):184-234.