Whether or not an election is held before the end of 2010, now is a good time for some further discussion about Thailand’s electoral culture.

A useful starting point is the debate about international election observers that briefly erupted in the lead up to the December 2007 election. The Surayud government vigorously rejected the suggestion that European Union observers should monitor the conduct of the election. This prompted some to argue that Surayud and his military buddies may be planning electoral shenanigans. In a New Mandala post at the time, I interpreted it differently:

Some members of the ruling regime in Thailand have reacted with predicable nationalist outrage to a European Union request to send observers to the forthcoming general election. Why such a defensive response? I don’t think it is because the junta holds out some hope of ballot-box manipulation. Quite the opposite. What the current regime fears most is that the Thai electoral process could be internationally recognised as being relatively clean. The “sufficiency democracy” paradigm that they promote is based on the view that the electoral process is so compromised by money politics that it can be cast aside when it delivers an unpalatable result. Slandering the electoral process is the ideological bread and butter of the coup-endorsing Thai elite. With European Observers on the ground, the elite’s ongoing attempts to discredit electoral democracy will be all the more difficult.

The rest, of course, is history.

I still think that Thailand has a vibrant and healthy electoral culture. Of course there are irregularities and acts of violence. And, no doubt, there are rivers of cash flowing in all directions in an attempt to attract political support. But I don’t think these weaknesses undermine the fundamental legitimacy of Thailand’s electoral process. The fact is that Thailand’s warts-and-all elections over the past decade or so have been free of gross manipulation (such as rampant ballot box stuffing or fraudulent vote counts) and have been conducted in a climate of open expression and meaningful contest. The overall results have reflected the will of the people.

Regulatory institutions, such as the Election Commission, have played a role in this positive outcome. But Thailand’s vibrant and tolerant local political culture has played a more important role. I have documented one local version of this in my 2008 article on the “rural constitution.” A very different study was conducted during June and July 2009 by the Asia Foundation. They interviewed 1500 respondents in 27 provinces about their attitudes towards constitutional reform and democracy. The report documents some of the important weaknesses in Thailand’s democratic system, most importantly a sense of powerlessness to effect government decisions, but there is also much that is very encouraging. Here are some of the results:

  • 80% feel free to express their political opinions in the area where they live.
  • 79% think that all political parties, even those that most people don’t like, should be able to hold meetings,
  • 93% would accept it if a friend joined a political party that most people don’t like , (that is, they would not end the friendship)
  • 92% think that women should make their own voting choice.
  • 71% were somewhat or very interested in politics. “This is quite high by regional standards.”
  • 50% chose “availability and accessibility” as the most important factor influencing choice of candidate. 17% chose education. Only 2% chose personal connections.
  • 38% chose “accomplishments of the party” as the most important factor influencing party choice. 22% rate the current plans of the party as most important. “Most Thai voters take a rational approach to choosing a party.”
  • 83% disagree with the statement that “it makes sense to follow the recommendations of local leaders when deciding who to vote for.”
  • 90% believe family members should make their own choice about voting (rather than follow the advice of the household head).
  • 91% say that religious leaders have little or no influence on their voting.
  • 84% think that is OK to take money from a party and then vote for whoever you like (an interesting contrast with the 58% who believe that voters in the area could be influenced by vote-buying).

Many of these results are consistent with results of an earlier study by Robert Albritton and Thawilwadee Bureekul that found high levels of satisfaction with the function of democracy in Thailand.

The greatest challenge to overcome before Thailand’s next election is the government’s draconian controls on the opposition media. Abhisit’s talk about the media playing a constructing role in his political road map sounds very much like code for ongoing repression of free speech. Once again, the threat to Thailand’s electoral culture comes from the top, not from the much maligned electorate.