There is no better place to start than the strange state of Thai politics and the elitist perspectives of the so-called democracy movement in Bangkok. Let me say at the outset that in the current stand-off I am a supporter of the Thai Rak Thai (Thaksin) government. Why? I don’t agree with all aspect of Thaksin’s economic development policy, though I consider much of the critique of his so-called populist policies to be misplaced. And I certainly do not wish to endorse his government’s flagrant abuses of human rights both in the South and in the notorious war on drugs. Nor am I, like many others, comfortable with Thaksin’s apparent manipulation of key democratic institutions. But, my support is motivated by the belief that the fundamental democratic institution is the ballot box. I cannot walk away from the fact that Thaksin’s government is popularly elected (three times now) and has held some of the most stunning electoral mandates in Thai history. The opposition parties’ boycott of the recent election reflects both their recognition that Thaksin would handsomely win a sensibly contested election and, more fundamentally, the shallowness of democratic traditions in Thailand.
I am increasingly surprised, even bewildered, by the failure of Thaksin’s Bangkok based critics to accept the legitimacy of his electoral mandates. There are, of course, legitimate concerns about the conduct of the rather bizarre April election. But the issues run much deeper than this. I often get a strong sense in the presentations and writing of these democracy advocates that all democratic institutions are sacred except the ballot box. Many of Thailand’s pro-democracy commentators seem to be promoting a form of democracy-lite in which democracy is embodied in bureaucratic institutions based in Bangkok. Popular election by all Thai people is an inconvenient add-on that hampers the potential for benign leadership from Bangkok, whether it be in its bureaucratic, Royal, military or even academic form.
The issue of why democratic election in this pro-democracy discourse is given such little weight is worth considering. The convenient catch phrase is, of course, vote buying. Thaksin’s electoral victories are considered to be illegitimate as a result of rampant vote buying. Of course Thai Rak Thai, and other parties, have been involved in the distribution of funds prior to elections. I myself was a beneficiary of Thaksin’s munificence before the 2005 election, receiving 100 baht, a Thai Rak Thai jacket and a first aid kit at a meeting I attended with villagers in rural Chiang Mai province. Similar amounts were also distributed at other party meetings in the electorate where I work. Rural people gladly accept these payments – who wouldn’t – but they are fully aware that there is no way tracing direct links between payments and votes. The ballot is secret (though there were concerns about the positioning of voting booths in the most recent election), ballot boxes are scrupulously sealed and votes are now counted at electorate level. It is impossible to determine the voting patterns in individual villages. Quite simply rural people accept payments from everyone and vote for whoever they wish. This is a complex sociological issue, but my feeling is that these payments should be seen as a demonstration of the ability of candidates to direct resources to the villages within their electorate. This is what rural people quite properly expect of their parliamentary representatives and distribution of funds prior to an election is a widely accepted way of demonstrating this willingness and capability.
An extension of this sort of argument is that the Thaksin’s economic development schemes, in particular the one million baht fund, have contributed to the political corruption of villagers. Well, if the acceptance of credit is equivalent to corruption then I plead guilty. The reality is that the jury is still out on the economic impacts of the million baht scheme and other local economic development initiatives. In my experience the million baht scheme has provided some much sought after locally managed credit (at much lower rates than informal money lenders) and this has contributed to agricultural and other enterprises. Of course, there are negative side effects, in terms of local social conflict about the management of such funds and some increase in overall debt levels (though this increase is relatively trivial by comparison to debt from other sources). My point is that it a patronizing elite perspective that condemns the provision of rural credit as a form of political corruption while Bangkok itself is awash with credit and debt in diverse forms.
Finally, one of the arguments against the legitimacy of Thaksin’s electoral victories seems to be that rural people are not in a position to make appropriate judgments about the alleged corruption of Thaksin and his government. This strikes me as an extraordinary claim given that discussions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of obtaining personal gain from public office appear to be ubiquitous in rural society. This is a key issue on which chairpersons of village women’s groups, headmen, tambon officials, public servants and bankers are judged. I see no reason why similar judgments cannot be made about the prime minister and his government especially given the popularity of the “corruption” discourse in rural Thailand.
Election boycotts, calls for Royal intervention in the form of a whisper or a shout, sly flirting with the military or even the casting of potent spells by having women place Thaksin’s photo beneath their genitals have no role to play in a modern democracy. Elections are not everything, but the tendency of the so-called pro-democracy movement to dismiss rural voters as gullible, easily bought and incapable of rational political decision-making reflects the shallowness of democratic sentiment among many of Thailand’s current opinion leaders.