Vote buying and Thaksin, and the Democrats
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Vote buying and Thaksin, and the Democrats

Stephen Young has an op-ed in the Bangkok Post on Thaksin and vote buying (he only mentions Thaksin):

But right now charismatic and traditionalist patron/client patterns of seeking legitimacy are stalling the transition to more rational/legal democratic practices. The populist policies and patronising political practices of Thaksinism actually undermine its democratic legitimation.

Thaksinism practices patronage on a grand scale using the entire government and its budgets to reward clients in the old style of traditional patrimonial authority structures. Votes are required from clients in exchange for preferential treatment. As an anchor for his charisma among the people the ability to reward is tied to Thaksin personally. If he had no funds to provide rewards, his charisma would largely evaporate as it has for many previous Thai autocrats coming from military or money politics backgrounds. But under the rational/legal norms of democracy, it is not permissible to buy votes. Democratic legitimacy must be earned in different, less corrupt ways of attracting support.

At the last election, the Pheu Thai Party won some 48% of the popular vote, less than a majority. If, as a thought experiment, all votes obtained by Pheu Thai candidates through the exchange of some kind of reward for votes received were subtracted from the party’s total vote, what percentage of legitimate votes would it still have?

Quite probably the party would have far less than a majority, and so would fall short in democratically legitimating its leadership of Thailand. If Thailand is to move closer to rational/legal democratic practices, it needs to end money politics and validate the rule of law.

BP: This is a favorite of topic of those who oppose the government. Simply put, they argue, as Young argues above, that Thaksin and his parties are in power because of vote buying. Those votes don’t count and the government is illegitimate. Suthep is stating that his model would eliminate vote buying and this is whole issue of vote buying is a factor in why people are protesting, but vote buying is a subject that BP has blogged on before and below is an adapted excerpt from a post in 2011.

An investigative report from the Bangkok Post in 2011 went to the economically depressed and red shirt stronghold of Bank Khen in Bangkok. Vote buying was found, although not in the form you may be expecting. Some key excerpts:

These folks are not averse to vote-buying and there is no shame in volunteering for a rent-a-mob, whatever the cause. One does what one has to do.

But in talking to the underprivileged residents in the Bang Khen district in the weeks before the July 3 election, it was obvious they were almost all red shirt sympathisers and anyone trying to buy votes was wasting money.

Nevertheless, one party not connected to the red shirts tried to capitalise on the easy democratic virtue of Bang Khen residents. A dozen or so campaigners from this big party made a single cursory visit to the slum areas. Small posters were distributed and many of these got fixed to dwellings.

This party was, however, more active when it came to seeking out residents to attend its campaign rallies. It recruited volunteers – some from adjacent government housing – for a highly-spirited session at North Bangkok University on June 10 at which Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva presided. A similar affair was staged at Rajabhat University on June 24 for a candidate from the big party. The event was presided over by Bangkok Governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra.

Sources say adults received 300 baht but the children were not compensated.

What did the canvasser give you?

He gave me 200 baht but I was expecting more.

What did the canvasser say when he handed you the 200 baht?

The canvasser only said the funds came from the XXXX party. He made no suggestion that I vote for them or anyone else.

Why did you vote for Pheu Thai when you were paid by another party?

Pheu Thai was my favourite.

This section of Bang Khen is solid for Pheu Thai. Don’t you think the other party was wasting its money?

No, I think they wanted to get a few ballots just to avoid a shutout.

BP: The article has more details about the rent-a-crowd and a photo too… Such payments are not surprising although actual rallies will always have a significant number of actual and committed participants – BP knows people who braved the rain to go and were constantly updating on FB. At least, the Bangkok Post spends some time looking into the issue and asking questions. It is obvious, it is a reference to the Democrats.

On the effectiveness of vote-buying, lets look back to the 2007 election and this concession by former Finance Minister Korn made at the FCCT in 2008. Below is a rough summary:

Question by Jonathan Head of BBC to Korn: Why are the Democrats always unable to win more votes in the Northeast?

Answer by Korn: …I can tell you what is not the issue. People like to divide the camps into rural and urban. The majority of the southern voters are rural. The popularity of Thaksin in the Northeast and to a lesser degree in the North is undeniable. It is also undeniable that traditionally they have been less politically active then southerners. It is also undeniable that money politics is less prevalent in the South. We we have less money than PPP. However I agree with Chris [Baker], money “is the price you pay to play the game but it doesn’t dictate whether you win or lose”. “If a candidate today in Loei runs under the Democrat banner for him to try to win he would need to spend two or three times more than his PPP opponent in order to win and even then he still might lose.

This is exactly what happened in the last election. A number of the old TRT MPs in the Northeast defected to the new party Puea Paendin and “they outspent PPP three to one and they still lost”. This goes along way to confirming what Chris said, but money is no longer determinative of your success. What Thaksin did was to make that connection and make it directly relevant to his target group. We are less afraid to compete against vote-buying than the buying of MPs. I still believe at the end of the day that if you sold your vote it is still your decision in the ballot box. However, it would be very ineffective for the Democrats to buy a Northeastern MP. Simply at the end of the day we cannot go against the will of the people and no amount of money will help.

Audio excerpt in MP3 format of Korn speaking at the FCCT is available from here.

BP: The end result of Puea Paendin outspending PPP 3 to 1 was that PPP won 233 seats and Puea Paendin 24. BP would be interested to see how much money a certain party who has a support base in Buriram (following the Post’s lead in not naming names!) spent in the recent election…..

Chang Noi on vote buying in 2008. Key excerpts:

In the early history of Thai vote-buying, candidates thrust red notes into voters’ hands in order to create an obligation. Once a voter had accepted the candidate’s generosity, it would be bad manners not to repay that generosity when casting the vote. But this kind of naive transaction did not last long. By the mid-1990s, some voters would take money from every candidate, and then vote how they pleased. Others would only take from a candidate they had already decided to vote for, in order not to create an obligation.

Candidates still had to offer money. Not doing so would risk being branded as “ungenerous” and thus not worth electing. This was particularly true of candidates known to be rich. Vote-buying has thus become a bit like a candidate’s deposit, distributed among the voters rather than paid to the authorities.

In the last couple of years, there have been studies of election practice in the North, Northeast, and South. The decision on casting a vote is now very complex and involves the party, the candidate, and the money. In the South, voters feel a strong emotional pull to vote Democrat. In the North and Northeast, Thaksin’s schemes have created a strong pull towards the People Power Party/Thai Rak Thai. Yet the candidate also undergoes scrutiny. Is he a local person, someone close to us? Can he get things done, and does he have the track record to prove it? Is he reasonably honest? Does he have the right kind of friends? Finally, does he prove his generosity with a gift? Only candidates known to have modest wealth are excused this obligation, yet can still be elected on grounds of their social contribution.

So why the current panic about vote-buying? The upcountry electorate is richer, better educated, and more experienced at elections than ever before. In truth, the problem is not that upcountry voters don’t know how to use their vote, and that the result is distorted by patronage and vote-buying. The problem is that they have learnt to use the vote only too well.Over four national polls, they have chosen very consistently and very rationally.

And, of course, that may be the real problem. Back when many upcountry electors sold their votes, and as a result their weight in national politics was zero, nobody cared so much about vote-buying. But now the electors have got smart, they have to be stopped. The bleating about vote-buying and patronage politics is simply an attempt to undermine electoral democracy because it seems to be working.

BP: As we moved closer to the recent election, we saw an uptake in the stories about vote-buying with various amounts being thrown around, although it is worth pointing to a NIDA poll (PDF) conducted just before the election. The poll surveyed 1,289 between June 24-25, 2011. The answers were that 65.94% said they would not sell their votes, 26.3% said they would accept the money but would not vote for the person they were paid to vote for, and 4.11% said they would take the money and vote for the person they were paid to vote for. This is represented in the below chart:

BP: Of course, polls can be wrong particularly on the percentages, but it is in line with the above anecdotal evidence and what Korn and Chang Noi said. Simply put, the effectiveness of vote-buying is on the wane compared to 20 years ago, with political parties offering policies and providing reasons for voters to vote for them. Now, it is slick marketing material and finding better ways to get your message across….

In addition, here is another post from 2007 on vote buying and the Democrats with some excerpts from academic literature.

Now, you may be thinking, this is from the past, but is there anything more current? Well, Deputy Democrat party leader Alongkorn Ponlaboot in an interview that was broadcast on May 31, 2013 on John Winyu’s show (รองหัวหน้าพรรคประชาธิปัตย์กล่าวในรายการ “เจาะข่าวตื้น ตอน 99”) stated:

Recently, if we are speak directly, they [Puea Thai] use little money. I am not saying we [the Democrats] use more money than them [Puea Thai]. [host interprets with statement “they are using less money”]. It has become inverted [host interprets and says “They don’t need to use so much money?”] I say if it is like that then don’t say we lost because of money” (หลังๆมานี้ ถ้าพูดกันตามตรงนะ เขาใช้เงินน้อย ผมไม่บอกว่าเราใช้เงินมากกว่านะ มันกลับหัวกลับหาง ผมบอกถ้าอย่างนั้นอย่ามาพูดว่าแพ้เพราะเงิน”). “For the last election, it may be because we actually used more than them. Therefore, don’t talk about this issue anymore (” เลือกตั้งหลังสุดอาจจะเป็นเพราะเราใช้เงินมากกว่าเขาด้วยซ้ำไป เพราะฉะนั้นอย่ามาพูดประเด็นนี้อีกต่อไป”)

NOTE: Above quotes begins at 32:20 – although from 31 minute mark he is also speaking about this issue at the last election.

BP: It is a common theme of Alongkorn that he wants the Democrats to stop talking about the issue of vote buying as that is not why they lost. He views the party needs to reform (with primaries + other reforms ) and policies to win votes….

Hence, then to use Young’s analogy, should we then discount the Democrat voters accordingly?