Earlier this year, I published a paper examining Thailand’s “rural consitution” (walker-2008.pdf). The paper documented the local political values that inform electoral decision making in a rural district of Chiang Mai province. It was a deliberate attempt to counter the commonly expressed view that electoral support for Thaksin was illegitimate because it was based on the financial mobilisation of gullible and ill-informed voters.

Two recent articles by American anthropologist Katharine Bowie, provide some further insight into the informal provisions of this “rural constitution” in northern Thailand. Both articles focus on a sub-district head (kamnan) election held in Chiang Mai province in 1996. Bowie is not one to romanticise local political life. This is a warts-and-all discussion of money politics, local political rivalry, intrigue, betrayal and recrimination. But running through both papers is the powerful message that electoral politics needs to be understood in terms of its embeddedness in local social relationships. One paper focuses on the ways in which matrilocal principles give women an often over-looked role in mobilising electoral support and brokering political relationships (bowie-2008a). The other examines how intensified political conflict in local government elections is, in part, a product of the intersection between modern laws aimed at decentralisation of power and older laws that had much more centralising objectives bowie-2008b.

Bowie’s conclusions in relation to vote-buying are worth quoting at some length:

Prevailing explanations of village vote buying range from a portrayal of villagers as embedded in a simple, rational capitalist calculation of selling their votes to the highest bidder to a portrayal of villagers as mired in a traditional moral economy of exchanging votes for gifts and hopes of protection. However, my anthropological case study of a village election suggests that these explanations suffer from five major flaws. First, these portrayals are ahistorical, failing to recognize that vote buying has not typified village electoral politics but rather has emerged in particular historical contexts. Second, these descriptions do not recognize the very different dynamics that characterize electoral politics at the village, tambon, provincial, and national levels; the more local the election, the more vote buying threatens village preferences for unanimity and anonymity. Third, such portrayals fail to recognize the dynamism of village politics, ignoring the complex and ever-shifting calculus by which village support for various candidates changes. Fourth, by failing to include a historical perspective, the explanations have minimized the importance in variations in patterns of vote buying; offering free pencils and free legal advice is different from bribing government officials, making private payments to individual villagers, or negotiating with a village community regarding proposed development projects. Finally, these characterizations fail to recognize how lacunae and ambiguities in the overall development of the national legal and administrative framework have complicated villagers efforts to protect democratic practices.

There will, of course, be some electoral prudes who point their moralising finger at any evidence that cash has a role to play in politics. Prudes are always fixated with the naughty bits. But cash payments before elections don’t necessarily signal the absence of electoral values. As I have argued in detail in my paper on the “rural constitution,” and as Bowie’s papers also demonstrate, distribution of cash prior to elections are assessed locally in terms of a range of interlinked political values that address issues of personal status, capability and morality.

Cash payments call political values into play. It is those who rely on the stereotype of votes readily exchanged for money who lack an appreciation of the importance of political values.