In my previous post I discussed the importance of localism in relation to what I call the “rural constitution.” I want to emphasise a key statement from that post as the point seems to have got a bit lost in some of the discussion:
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.
A second key element of the “flexible framework” provided by the rural constitution is the view that political representatives should financially support their constituency. Here are some extracts from my discussion of this issue.
As I have noted, the issue of financial support is dominated in much discussion by the spectre of vote buying. I have no doubt that political candidates make direct cash payments to voters in Baan Tiam–even I was a beneficiary of Thaksin’s munificence (100 baht) when I attended a Thai Rak Thai party meeting. But in this section my aim to place direct cash handouts to electors in the context of a broader array of material assistance that is expected of political representatives and other well resourced people seeking to demonstrate their social standing and their embeddedness in local circuits of exchange. These culturally valued strategies of material assistance include: personal loans; donations to temples (especially on the occasion of more elaborate merit making ceremonies); support for household rituals (weddings and funerals in particular); donations of goods and equipment to organisations and individual households; payment of (appropriately inflated) expenses for attendance at meetings; contributions to local development projects; payment of children’s education expenses; provision of low cost transport services; and support for budgetary shortfalls in local development projects. [I then provide some detailed examples of various types of support.]
Though they may be regarded as a “very crude form of social welfare” (McCargo 2002: 7) these various forms of assistance are locally assessed in terms of a range of interlinked political values which address issues of personal status, capability, and morality. First, there is a widespread view that those with an established financial position (tanna phrom) are in the best position to hold political office. In part this is due to the obvious personal financial demands made on local and national politicians. Being a politician involves the building of charisma (sang barami) and regular demonstrations “that they have not forgotten the villagers.” This is an expensive process, requiring regular investment in the form of donations, loans and attendance at an enormous range of social events. Of course, there is some circularity to this logic– politicians need to have an established financial position to support their electoral outlays, and they need to make electoral outlays to demonstrate their financial position! But the preference for politicians with established financial positions is also informed by the common view that financially secure representatives are less likely to corrupt public monies than those who are less affluent. One villager, for example, spoke enthusiastically about the credentials of one of the Mayoral candidates, with personal affluence in this case clearly rating above local connections:
He is a good and fair man. I don’t think he would cheat with money because he already gets paid a lot, about 40,000 [baht per month]. He is not likely to want to cheat more. Some people say that he is an outsider, but this is not important because a person from outside doesn’t have an opportunity to favour anyone. And he is well educated.
A second key political value relating to the issue of support is that the best political representatives are those who have made sacrifice (sia sala) for the broader community interest. In local discourse a strong distinction is regularly made between the private (suan tua) domain and the public (suan huam) domain. “Sacrifice” typically involves the diversion of some resources (labour, time and cash) from the private to the public sphere. There are many types of such sacrifice that are locally valued: participating in committees; assisting with the implementation of development projects; making representations on behalf of less capable villagers; and active involvement in village festivals. Provision of financial assistance is a highly visible way of demonstrating personal sacrifice, especially in the busy pre-election environment when time constraints limit other forms of participation. But there is a caveat here. An appropriate demonstration of sacrifice requires that there is a perception that the funds being used are private rather than public funds. Of course, there are numerous ways in which candidates will attempt to blur this distinction (especially incumbents who already have access to various budgetary allocations) but a widespread perception that public funds are being used to create an impression of personal sacrifice is likely to generate some electoral backlash.
A third key value is the local commitment to development. A standard mode of justifying or challenging a candidate’s credentials is the extent to which he has, or will, bring development to the local area. The importance of this value is reflected in the ubiquity of terms such as pattana (development), jaroen (progress, prosperity), and kaw na (moving forward) in local campaign material. The incumbent candidate for Mayor emphasised his development achievements in his campaign songs:
The Municipality has moved forward. The roads are good, the work is finished. We have lights on both sides of the road. We have water to drink and water to use. The water supply system has provided water to houses near and far. We will continue to expand it. Rich and poor are equal. Mark my words, the work we have done is not insignificant. We will continue to move forward and work together so everyone can be happy and secure.
The discursive force of “development” in electoral culture is complex. On the one hand it fits readily with the image of the generous and good hearted patron who is sacrificing himself for the benefit of the broader community. Financial donation prior to the election is a demonstration of the candidate’s willingness and capability to direct development resources to his constituents. Personal sacrifice and community development are symbolically linked. But, at the same time, the common emphasis on progress and development can move local discussion of “support” into a somewhat different domain of social meaning. In broad terms there is, I propose, an emerging distinction between forms of benevolent assistance that are expressed in personalised patron-client terms and forms of development assistance that are linked to more socially inclusive modernist discourses of progress, administration and broad-based access. Whereas personal generosity is highly valued in relation to the former, the latter places primary emphasis on the ability to effectively mobilise government resources and to direct them to “projects” in the local area. Of course these are ideal types that are often hard to distinguish in practice but they are based on somewhat different local values and distinction can provide a basis for various forms of political critique.
[Evaluating Thai Rak Thai in terms of “support”]
As I have indicated, there was some grumbling about the limited local involvement of the Thai Rak Thai candidate and there were also complaints about the limited payments received for attendance at Thai Rak Thai meetings. … Overall, despite some specific acts of personal support the Thai Rak Thai candidate did not have the reputation for high profile generosity. In fact it was the locally embedded opposition candidate who was more readily associated with the values of benevolent patronage. His active engagement in the district had earned him the affectionate (and, for some, slightly mocking) title of “the honourable tent” (sor sor tent) referring to the large number of canvas awnings (printed with his name) that he had donated to local organisations during his previous tenure as local representative. … The candidate’s benevolent profile was enhanced by view that “Mahachon is much more generous than Thai Rak Thai” in its payment for attendance at rallies and party meetings.
But Thai Rak Thai’s disadvantage in relation to the personal characteristics of its candidate was outweighed by the strong local endorsement for the more formal support provided as a result of Thaksin’s policies. Here, his government was regarded as having performed very strongly, most specifically in terms of a series of local economic development initiatives such as the village fund and the so-called “SML” program. In Baan Tiam, despite some problems, the one million baht village fund has operated relatively successfully with relatively high rates of repayment. It had also managed to increase its original capital stock as a result of members’ regular deposits and the purchase of member shares. The SML grant funded the construction of a village rice mill, which offers cheaper rates than the three privately own village mills. A number of farmers in Baan Tiam have also taken up the subsidised cattle provided under the “one million cows” program. And about 20 have participated in income generating activities provided as part of the government’s poverty alleviation campaign. There was also very strong local support for the government’s health policy which provided hospital treatment for only 30 baht, though the Mahachon proposal that rich people should pay substantially more struck something of a local chord. [I then provide a number of local statements expressing support for these various policies.]
Electoral support for the various government initiatives was enhanced by the perception that they had been implemented very quickly and that they had been implemented in a way that largely bypassed local bureaucracy. As the above quotes indicate, the rapid pace of Thaksin’s support was a key point of contrast with previous governments. The SML scheme was regularly cited as demonstrating the government’s effectiveness. It was promised in the campaign for the February 2005 election and by June 2005 the village had received the money and was in a position to decide which project would be implemented. Though there was considerable local debate how the money would be spent but the policy of village level decision making and implementation (khit eng tham eng) was seen as a significant departure from the usual administrative practice of submitting funding requests to higher level authorities. The eventual decision was to construct a community rice mill and it was completed by early 2006, little more than a year after villagers had first heard about the new program.
But it would be very misleading to suggest that the Thai Rak Thai was invulnerable on the issue of support. In fact there was persistent local criticism that Thaksin’s government had offered insufficient support to the agricultural sector. This needs to be understood in terms of the considerable agricultural uncertainty faced by Baan Tiam’s farmers. Coinciding with the Thaksin’s government’s tenure many have experienced catastrophic declines in the yield of garlic, their primary cash crop. Of course, the primary causes of this reduction in yield–disease, bad weather and soil-fertility decline–were unrelated to government policy. However the government was not completely blameless in relation to the garlic collapse and a good number of farmers correctly linked the steep drop in the price of garlic to the government’s free trade agreement with China. As one of the most active garlic farmers in the village told me, “Thaksin has been good internationally (phay nook) but not so good within the country.” But even more damaging was a general perception that the government had done little to address the overall agricultural malaise and there were specific concerns that some of the agricultural support programs (especially the livestock raising initiatives) were tokenistic and unviable. Often an implicit contrast was drawn between specific development initiatives (on which Thaksin scored well) and a broader based support for the agricultural sector. Consider the views of Daeng, when he was responding to rumours that officials would be coming to the village to check that farmers claiming the government subsidy for reducing the area of garlic cultivation had actually done so:
Why should they come? Really, farmers who grow garlic don’t get anything anyway. You have to invest a lot in fertiliser, and I don’t want to be in debt. But we have to do it, because there is no alternative income. Why is the price of fertiliser and fuel going up? But the money to help us and the prices for our crops don’t go up, they just go down. Just look at it! For the rice I lost [in the floods in the 2005 wet season] I only got 300 baht. If I had not lost that rice and been able to sell it I would have got several thousand. But, the government is not completely bad. Some of the other projects are OK, and quick. But their commitment and spending on agriculture is small and the farmers are in still in trouble. No end in sight! I am still in debt. Everyone is in debt. We work every day but don’t have enough money to pay off our debts. See if you can find a house in the village that is not in debt. Since this government came a lot of things have got better, such as the 30 baht health care scheme. And the government has started to help us, but it’s not enough and not transparent.
Daeng’s impassioned statement … links to a strong thread of local critique that Thaksin’s one million baht village fund had merely increased indebtedness:
Thai politics is terrible. I don’t like Thaksin. He has given money to the villagers but I have not seen any of them get rich, just further into debt. Farmers are in trouble, all the crop prices are going down. Growing garlic this year was terrible, just a waste. I stopped farming a few years ago. Running a restaurant is better.