This is the second post in which I provide extracts of my recently drafted paper on local electoral culture in northern Thailand. The paper is based on ethnographic research in the village of Baan Tiam (if you are looking for statistical analysis of voting behavior you will have to look elsewhere!). In the previous post I introduced the concept of a “rural constitution.” The rural constitution represents the everyday political values that inform electoral decision making. It is a concept that challenges the notion that rural votes are readily mobilised on the basis of vote buying.
One of the key elements of the rural constitution is what I am calling “localism.” I am not completely happy with this term as it has also been used to apply to the promoters of “community culture,” “local wisdom” and even “sufficiency economy.” What I am talking about is rather different, but for the time being I will stick with the “localist” label.
One of the most commonly expressed political values in Baan Tiam is that it is better to elect a local than a non-local. In its most simplified form this is expressed as a preference for candidates from “baan haw.” Literally “baan haw” can be translated as “our village” but “baan” is a delightfully malleable word and its spatial referent of belonging can readily adjust to the different scales of electoral competition. …
In local government elections localism provides an explicit framework for political discussion and debate. Candidates are readily assessed in terms of the strength of their local linkages, which are highly legible and amenable to commentary within the electorate. The importance of localism is enhanced by the fact that the large increase in resource allocations to local government (as a result of decentralisation) has heightened budgetary competition between villages. As one villager told me, seeing the council fall under the control of another village would be like “waiting for an air drop of food and then watching the parachute float down on the other side of the hill.” In fact, Baan Tiam has been a successful contender in these local resource contests. The previous sub-district head (kamnan) was a Baan Tiam resident and he went on to become the district’s provincial assemblyman (until he was defeated in the election of 2004). Most of his supporters in Baan Tiam expressed their support in terms of their desire to “help” someone from the same village. As Grandmother Mon said in the lead up to the provincial assembly election: “I’m helping one of us, whatever happens he’s one of us.” The incumbent candidate for Mayor in the municipal election was also a resident of Baan Tiam and derived considerable support from the view that it was only logical to vote for a fellow villager. He was also able to expand the range of his localist support as a result of close kinship connections with at least two other villages in the municipality. By contrast other Mayoral candidates were weakened by perceptions that they were insufficiently locally embedded. This clearly applied to one candidate who was a former government official who had been posted to the area for only four years. But even long-term residents could be judged as non-local. One Mayoral candidate, Dr Tanet, had distributed aprons advertising one of his businesses to vendors in the market. When I asked one of the small restaurant owners if her apron signalled support for Tanet she responded:
He came and gave them out so we decided to wear them. He is standing for election to be Mayor. But I don’t know if he will get elected. He is not a local (bor jay khon ban haw). He has lived here for 20 years. Most people know him. But he is from somewhere else.
One of the underlying motivations for what I am referring to as localism is a desire for political legibility. It is not just the state that seeks to create simplified and legible structures of governance (Scott 1998). Electors themselves seek to locate candidates in a simplified framework of inside (baan haw) versus outside. This is a morally charged framework in which the spatially flexible concept of baan haw is associated with approachability, social familiarity, linguistic ease and commitment to local institutions. But localism does not provide a simple template for political decisions (quite apart from the fact that there are other political values in play). Partly this is because it operates in ambiguous ways and there are competing claims to varying degrees of localness. Within Baan Tiam, for example, there is real concern that the large number of politically engaged people means that the local vote is split and that the political influence of the village is reduced. Quite simply, there are too many “locals” to chose from. Another key factor mitigating the purchase of localist values is that local legibility also often involves an intimate awareness of the human frailty of electoral contenders. The symbolic force of the simplified baan haw categorisation can be attenuated when it is set alongside the reality of interpersonal dispute, jealousy, resentment and gossip. The local reality of interpersonal conflict opens up fissures that can provide a basis for non-localist forms of political orientation. In the Mayoral election it was no coincidence that some of the most active local canvassers for alternative candidates were from the immediate neighbourhood of the incumbent. As one commented to me, if the incumbent Mayor lost it would be a result of “his disrespectful behaviour and the habits of his relatives.” In brief, localism provides one flexible framework for political decision making, but local social life is simply too complex for it to be used as a one-dimensional template for political action.
[Evaluating Thai Rak Thai in terms of localism]
In the national election of 2005 localism played an interesting, but politically ambiguous role. Thaksin is, of course, from Chiang Mai and is, in the eyes of many voters in the region, one of “baan haw.” One of the popular Thai Rak Thai slogans, regularly printed in distinctive northern Thai idiom, tapped into this sentiment: “The people of Chiang Mai are proud; the Prime Minister is from Chiang Mai. Thai Rak Thai is the only party.” Part of the local political identity of the district was that it has become part of the heartland of the Thai Rak Thai electoral support. There is some concern that the district is not an important voting base and that it is potentially taken for granted but, nevertheless, there is a common extension of the “baan haw” category to include Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party. This commonly expressed sentiment was nicely summarised by a local party canvasser:
Thaksin’s policies develop Chiang Mai. And we are Chiang Mai people. So why wouldn’t we vote for him? Northerners have to help northerners and then Thai Rak Thai will win. They have the north, Isan and the centre. We have to help Thaksin because the southerners will vote Democrat, they won’t vote for a northerner. If Thai Rak Thai win then the budgets will come here. Otherwise they will be cancelled.
The common contrast with the Democrat south is morally charged, with the southern region increasingly seen as an undesirable place characterised by religious difference, ongoing violence and, in the lead up to the 2005 election, the inauspicious misfortune of the tsunami. At a speech at the district centre the Thai Rak Thai candidate made much of the contrast between the “good hearted” people of Chiang Mai and the Democrats of the south. In response to a question about agricultural extension he enthusiastically promoted the virtues of rubber, claiming that Thaksin had lifted the Democrat-imposed southern monopoly on the cultivation of rubber, providing a new source of lucrative income for farmers in the north and the northeast. Initial tests, he suggested, had shown that northern farmers could produce even higher quality rubber than their southern counterparts!
So, localist sentiment certainly acted in Thai Rak Thai’s favour and it was actively cultivated during the campaign. But this was not without complexities when we come to consider the candidates themselves. The Thai Rak Thai candidate (the incumbent, first elected in 2001) may well have been a Chiang Mai man, but to my knowledge this was not a key point of local discussion. What was more relevant was that his long career in public administration combined with a somewhat bookish, formal and aloof style clearly marked him in non-local terms. Regular comments were made that he had a very low profile in the district and that he did not communicate easily with farmers. By contrast, his opponent (who had previously served as a member of parliament) was well known and locally popular. He came from a neighbouring district (where many in Baan Tiam had relatives) and was renowned for his informal, friendly and avuncular style. At the election rally he held in the district centre he impressed the large crowd with his entertaining command of informal northern Thai. He was even able to address some comments to the Karen present in their own language, a smart move in a region where linguistic word play is an exceptionally popular pastime. He explicitly played up his localist credentials, emphasising that the election was about choosing a local representative rather than choosing a party (the Thai Rak Thai campaign message was exactly the opposite). The pre-election sentiment was that the localist credentials of the opposition candidate may well result in his victory and while he lost heavily in the overall count I have no doubt that he attracted substantial support in Baan Tiam where some of the most influential opinion leaders (including the headman) were keen supporters.