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Democracy, and vote buying, returning to Thailand

Filed under: General,global islands,government,thailand — admin @ 5:58 am

NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand: There is an old story here in Thailand’s vast, rice-growing hinterland about politicians who handed out a pair of slippers at election time – one slipper before the vote and the other after they were successfully elected.

Since the earliest days of democracy in Thailand seven decades ago, candidates have used both creative and not-so-creative ways to buy votes. The eve of an election is still known here as the “night of the barking dogs” because canvassers traditionally go house to house handing out cash – rousing hounds along the way.

Fourteen months after the military took power in a bloodless coup, Thailand is returning to democracy. And this, say government officials preparing for the Dec. 23 elections, means the return of money politics.

Phones have started ringing in the offices of the country’s Election Commission, and 75 cases of alleged vote buying have been opened based on complaints and tip-offs, according to Suthiphon Thaveechaiygarn, the secretary general of the commission.

“Political parties will definitely try to buy votes,” Suthiphon said in a phone interview from Bangkok. “They are trying to develop new techniques.”

Vote buying in various forms exists in many countries, whether as last-minute road paving, “lunch money” for voters who attend rallies or the supply of food and provisions. But it is especially well entrenched in Thailand.

Economists have calculated that the economy swells by about 30 billion baht, or close to $1 billion, around election time. Supavud Saicheua, the managing director of Phatra Securities, which conducts research for Merrill Lynch in Thailand, called this estimate “not far-fetched.”

“People need to be incentivized to go to the polls,” said Supavud, who also serves on a government economic planning committee. He added that as a form of wealth distribution “it’s better than any government program.”

Typically, money or favors are handed out by canvassers from political parties and distributed to voters by village headmen. It is considered too crass and too risky for candidates to give out money themselves.

No one knows what the scale of vote buying will be in this election, but the government appears to expect the worst. Both the prime minister and the general who led the coup last year have been warning for weeks of widespread vote buying. The Election Commission has sent 2,200 investigators, some of them undercover, to zones where they believe the problem will be most common. And six police officers have been assigned to monitor each of the 400 constituencies.

A recently passed law makes it illegal, and punishable with prison, to receive money for votes. Previously, only those who paid could be prosecuted. But the law, which came into effect in October, also offers rewards of up to 100,000 baht for those who have received money and who report it before or within seven days of election day.

Yet many people, including government officials, are skeptical that the new law – especially the reward provision – can work.

“You have to compare the value of the money they are receiving to the value of their lives,” said Mehta Silapun, the director of the Election Commission in Nakhon Ratchasima, one of the main cities in northeast Thailand. “After they give the information, they still have to go back and live in the area with the people that they reported.”

Politically motivated murders are not uncommon during election time. “The person who reports vote buying must be very brave, a very good person or have friends who can protect them,” Mehta said.

Thavison Lownanuruck, the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce in Nakhon Ratchasima, says the law will discourage canvassers from handing out cash. But he predicts canvassers will provide voters with bus tickets and coupons for gasoline, as well as pay for things like school fees for children and payments on motorcycle loans.

“They will say, ‘You just give the receipt to me, I will take care of it,’ ” Thavison said.

The election will pit allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon who was ousted as prime minister last year, against his longstanding opposition, the Democrat Party, and an array of smaller parties. The military is watching the outcome nervously for signs that Thaksin’s proxies will triumph.

“This is not just an ordinary election,” Thavison said. “The question is whether Thaksin can come back or not.”

At a government-sponsored seminar last Tuesday, Thavison asked an audience of village headmen from around northeast Thailand how many of them thought the election would be “fair.” No one raised his hand.

Thaksin has remained overseas since the coup, and his party has been disbanded. But his allies created the People Power Party, which according to some opinion polls is the front-runner in the elections.

Northeastern Thailand, populous and poor, is a leading battleground for Thaksin; 135 of the 400 constituencies in Parliament will be elected from Isaan, as the region is known. Bangkok, by contrast, elects only 36 seats.

Vote buying has long been most prevalent in Isaan, where the tradition is woven into village life. Gothom Arya, a former election commissioner, says handing out money and favors is only one part of a “neo-feudal” relationship between a villager and politician-cum-patron.

“It’s a setting where you exchange favors,” Gothom said. “You rely on me. I rely on you.”

Farmers and villagers offer their support in the expectation that their wealthy patrons will show their generosity and offer help when times get bad, Gothom said.

“Honestly speaking, this is normal,” said Somporn Trisak, owner of a small roadside restaurant in a rice-farming community near Nakhon Ratchasima city. “Every party hands out money. People take money from everyone, but who they vote for is up to them.”

Somporn said money had not yet been distributed to voters in her village, but said she had heard that local canvassers had already received money.

It remains possible that closer scrutiny by the authorities and tougher laws will deter vote buying. In 2001, when the Thai economy was still recovering from economic crisis, a popular and ironic phrase among villagers in the northeast was: “The money hasn’t come. I don’t know how to vote.”

Somphant Techa-atik, a specialist on vote buying and a newspaper columnist based in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, says that because of high gasoline prices, the most popular form of vote buying in this election will be paying for people to return to their hometowns to vote. Many people from the northeast work hundreds of kilometers from their homes on construction sites, in resorts or in Bangkok as waiters, maids, salespeople or taxi drivers.

“If you have to spend 3,000 baht to make it back to your hometown, nobody will do it,” he said.

On Nov. 13, the police arrested the owner of a gasoline station in Nakhon Ratchasima Province and seized bank notes amounting to 10,700 baht that were stapled to a pamphlet carrying the names of candidates from the People Power Party. The Election Commission says it is investigating vote buying.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, Somphant said.

“It’s difficult to offer tangible evidence of vote buying,” Somphant said. “But everyone in Thailand knows it happens.”

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