Here is a short extract (please forgive the self promotion involed in my selection) from an excellent article by Reuter’s Andrew Marshall about politics and education in Thailand. For those of you who feel inclined to critique Marshall, can I suggest the good-old-fashioned strategy of reading his article first.

For supporters of the establishment, the tragic events of 2010 have confirmed their worst fears about the stupidity and credulity of the masses. They point out that the ordinary red shirts who occupied central Bangkok were paid to take part in the protests, presumably at least partly out of Thaksin’s deep pockets. Furthermore, many impoverished red shirts have been told that if Thaksin returns to power, their debts will be forgiven. And the arson attacks on May 19 seemed to prove just how uncivilised and dangerous the “rural hordes” are. Now more than ever, they believe that what Thailand needs is a strong government of the elites that crushes Thaksin, safeguards the established hierarchy, and returns the Land of Smiles to social harmony with everybody knowing their place.

But it is by no means obvious that the support of much of Thailand’s poor for Thaksin Shinawatra is evidence of their lack of understanding and the ease with which they can be bribed to support a leader who will not bring them any real benefits. Andrew Walker of the Australian National University, who runs the superb New Mandala blog with Nicholas Farrelly, has written a detailed analysis of rural voting. As he says:

Political commentators have regularly asserted that the Thai populace, and especially the rural populace, lacks the basic characteristics essential for a modern democratic citizenry. Accounts of the deficiencies of the voting population often focus on three key problems. First, uneducated rural voters are parochial and have little interest in policy issues. Lacking a well-developed sense of national interest they vote for candidates who can deliver immediate benefits. Secondly, given their poverty and lack of sophistication they are readily swayed by the power of money. Vote buying is said to be endemic. Cash distributed by candidates, through networks of local canvassers, plays a key role in securing voter loyalty. And, thirdly, rural electoral mobilisation is achieved via hierarchical ties of patronage whereby local influential figures can deliver blocks of rural votes to their political masters.

And yet, as Walker convincingly shows with his analysis of Baan Tiam village an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai, rural people may not have a deep grasp of the intricacies of politics, but they are more than capable of making a decision about which party they feel will do the most to improve their lives:

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

Walker’s scholarly study reinforces points that should be obvious to anybody who gives the issue any thought – quite clearly, whatever one thinks of Thaksin Shinawatra (and my views are here), his Thai Rak Thai government made the effort to listen to what rural voters wanted and to implement policies that improved their lives. It was entirely rational for rural voters to support Thaksin, and this is not a sign of stupidity. Quite the reverse. Of course rural voters are often influenced by local concerns and by personalities, but how else are they to decide who to vote for? Until Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai transformed Thai politics a decade ago, Thai political parties had no clear agenda at all, and any voter – rural or urban, rich or poor, educated or uneducated – could only vote according to narrow issues and personalities.