In previous posts I have discussed two of the key elements in what I am calling the “rural constitution” – a preference for locally embedded candidates and an expectation that political representatives will financially support their electorate. In the following extracts I consider a third key local political value – an emphasis on strong and transparent administration.
This perspective places considerable emphasis on educational qualifications. This is a clear challenge to localist values. Most of the locally embedded local politicians are of a generation when rural people had limited access to educational opportunities, most not having gone beyond the middle years of primary school. For some voters this is seen as a limitation in terms of administrative and legal competence. This issue was gained some currency in relation to the Mayoral election with some arguing that the Mayor Somsak’s limited education (fourth grade) meant that he was incapable of effectively reigning in officials within his administration, most of whom held bachelor degrees. Other better educated candidates, who also had more formal experience in public administration, were seen as better placed to “reduce the role” of non-elected officials. Of course, this view did not go unchallenged with the Mayor Somsak responding by tapping into localist sentiment about the remoteness and impracticality of knowledge acquired through formal education:
Dr. Tanet [his main opponent] may have a Master’s degree but it doesn’t mean that he can manage the work. Just sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office giving out orders is one thing, but he can’t get out and walk in the paddy fields. How will he help the villagers? There are lots of people who think like this. That’s why they will vote for me.
Apart from the desirability of educational qualifications there are a number of other elements in the modernist emphasis on strong administration. These include an ability to speak well at meetings, to make quick and effective decisions, to make appropriate financial allocations and to represent the locality effectively in meetings with higher level bureaucrats and politicians. But perhaps most important of all is that administration, and specifically the implementation of “projects” (khrongkaan), is transparent (phrongsay). Mayor Somsak’s campaign slogan–“aiming for development, honest, transparent, accountable”–tapped into one of the most common preoccupations of local political discourse. This discussion often revolves around the implementation of the numerous projects that are a key preoccupation of Baan Tiam’s everyday politics. Projects are stereotypically justified in terms of their collective (suan huam) character and in terms of their generalised benefit (prayort). But they usually bring together quite specific coalitions of interests and, as such, are the focus for ongoing conflict about the allocation of resources and the distribution of benefits. Most projects are subjected to withering criticism and gossip–including regular allegations of financial mismanagement and misappropriation–by those who support other elements of collective activity. It is in this context that the language of transparency becomes crucial both in defending ones own initiatives and in casting aspersions on the implementers of other projects.
For some, this emphasis on transparent administration starts to displace the electoral value of development. In this alternative framing, rapid development comes to be associated with rushed and unaccountable expenditures, often on projects of dubious economic value. Development can also function as a form of electoral manipulation with high levels of spending on local projects, especially in the months leading up to an election, regarded as a blatant attempt to secure votes. …
And, of course, the discourse of transparent administration links to explicit concerns about corruption. One of the most electorally damaging aspects of corruption is that it can undermine the imagery of personal sacrifice for the common good. But this is a subtle moral economy. As I noted earlier, the imagery of sacrifice in the form of diversion of resources from the private to the collective domain is highly valued electoral asset. But, at the same time it is broadly accepted that many of those who are active in the collective sphere will gain some private benefit for themselves or for their family, kin and close friends. As such, is regarded as quite normal that political representatives will derive some private benefit from public office. The key is to maintain this benefit at a level that is appropriate. What is appropriate is difficult to judge, and it in this grey area of exchange between collective and private benefit that conflict often erupts and allegations of corruption are made. These allegations are likely to be electorally potent if there is a perception that collective resources are used for private benefit in a way that directly disadvantages others…
[Evaluating Thai Rak Thai in terms of administration]
In relation to “administration” many of Thaksin’s personal qualities were highly valued. He had a record of extraordinary business success, he was a very capable public speaker and a charismatic media performer, and he had excellent educational qualifications. Particularly important in local perceptions was that Thaksin could speak English well – a key cultural marker of access, sophistication and intellect. What all this meant was that Thaksin could effectively represent Thailand on the world stage. “Thailand is famous now,” Baan Tiam’s assistant headman told me, “everyone has heard of Prime Minister Thaksin.” Even the opposition recognised the electoral potency of Thaksin’s worldliness and made some attempt to neutralise it. At the local Mahachon rally before the 2005 election, the local candidate spoke enthusiastically about the qualifications of party leader Professor Anek. He referred specifically to the American Universities where he had studied and to the fact that he had written text books that were used by Westerners, “unlike the leader of another party who just reads Western books.”
There was one particular aspect of his administration that contributed to the Thaksin mystique and reinforced the image that he was a national leader who could operate effectively on the world stage. Local supporters regularly cited the fact that Thaksin had cleared the IMF debt that had been Thailand’s national burden in the wake of the economic crisis. This had enhanced Thailand’s international status, improved the country’s credit rating, and enabled the government to better support its own population. Some even suggested that Thaksin’s success in settling the IMF debt was an indication that, given time, he would be able to deal with the problem of household debt. This electorally beneficial blurring of national and private debt was nicely expressed by the owner of one of Baan Tiam’s noodle shops:
In the past any Thai child that was born was 60,000 baht in debt. But now the IMF debt is gone and Thailand’s new born can rest easy. And money is coming into the village. Thaksin has done a good job. As for the other side – I’ve seen nothing.
Another factor that acted strongly in Thaksin’s favour was his penchant for high profile campaigns (or “wars” – songkhram). The ambitious targets and tight deadlines of these campaigns clearly captured the local imagination. Most prominent of these was the so-called “war on drugs” during which there were over 2000 extra-judicial killings of alleged drug dealers in a nation-wide crackdown. As in other parts of Thailand this heavy-handed campaign attracted significant local support. It was regularly cited as evidence of Thaksin’s effectiveness and his strong and decisive leadership. It tapped into profound local anxieties about the spread of amphetamine use among young people and was also consistent with local sentiments that continue to value direct action against alleged criminals. Consider the comments of Uncle Man who checked himself out of hospital on election day in 2006 so he could cast his vote in favour of Thai Rak Thai (despite the fact that there was no opposition candidate):
The thing I like most about Thaksin is the war on drugs. There has been a real benefit. In the past there were a lot of people on drugs, a lot of young people in this village. Just a couple of years ago, some young people came and tried to steal computers from the school. They were kids from our village. I didn’t want to get involved. I am old and they might kill me. Our village set up a “night patrol” committee. It was a secret committee. They got people in several villages. Now it is quiet and I feel much safer.
These, then, were some of the key positive features of Thaksin’s administrative record. But set against these were common concerns about his corruption. Thaksin’s extraordinary wealth and his various business dealings and manipulations while in government made him vulnerable to the charge that he was “greedy,” that he “cheated” too much, and that he surrounded himself with bad people. These were commonly expressed views, though for many they were not electorally potent given the view that while he had “helped himself” Thaksin had also “shared” the benefits with the rural people. In other words, his diversions from the public domain to his private domain were not seen as having directly disadvantaged rural voters. But this rational was not universal and some countered by pointing out that Thaksin’s apparent generosity to the poor was not genuine, as it had come from government money rather than from his own private funds:
Talking of Thaksin, I call him “sapsin” (property). I don’t like the way he has cheated so much money. My relatives in Bangkok don’t like him at all and never agree with his actions because he just throws money away. The money that Thaksin uses is the country’s money. It is not money from his own pocket. He has lots of money but we never see him make donations – when he dies will he be able to take it with him?
For some voters Thaksin’s corruption and maladministration was highlighted by the controversial 2006 election. As a result of the boycott by opposition parties, Baan Tiam’s electorate only had one party standing–Thai Rak Thai. As a result, some argued that the election itself was a waste of money (“the country’s money, the money of every villager”) and that the electorate was being taken for granted by offering them no electoral choice:
I think they should delay the election. Because doing it like this is not fair to all parties. I don’t like Thaksin’s government because it has cheated a lot and “eaten” too much. But here we only have Thai Rak Thai and this district is a vote base for them. Personally I would like another government to run the country.