Though his corruption was legendary, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, was quite popular with the Rural Thai people, the majority of the electorate in that nation. When the Thai military removed him from power on September 19, 2006, the rationale for the coup by his opponents was that the elections which he had won were illegitimate. His votes had been bought, his opponents charged, from a rural constituency that was not sophisticated enough to recognize his faults.
His continuing popularity in rural Thailand was a clear sign of voter irrationality, they charged. It showed that the electoral process was a failure. Andrew Walker, from the Australian National University in Canberra, debunks these conventional arguments. He has written a fascinating analysis of rural Thai politics, based in large part on his own field work in a village during the period of Thaksin’s controversial rule and the coup that removed him.
Walker refuses to accept the simplifications of Thaksin’s opponents. In building his case for a much more nuanced view of the rural Thai electorate, however, he also will not allow them to be romanticized. Many of the country people are quite sophisticated in their understandings of human nature, but they frequently base their votes on trivial reasoning.
Thaksin’s enemies, and the urban intellectuals who support them, argue that the uneducated rural Thai have minimal interest in policy issues. Their votes can be easily bought by politicians who are part of corrupt systems of patronage. If only the rural people had more education, they would become better voters, this thinking goes. The author rejects the inaccuracies of these characterizations.
He points out that in the rural village in which he worked—he calls it Baan Tiam—voter turnout was very high, around 80 percent. A large number of people were actively involved in politics at the local level. “Electoral contests are embedded in local social relationships,” he writes, “and values that relate to the day-to-day politics of the village readily spill over into the electoral arena.”
Walker argues that a “rural constitution” operates in the Thai countryside. As any constitution must, it defines and regulates the structures, roles, and powers of government. This unwritten, but very real, set of values regulates the political process in rural Thailand, legitimizing and constraining the power of the elected politicians. The rural constitution suggests appropriate political behaviors and forbids inappropriate abuses by governing officials.
The author describes several major characteristics of the rural constitution. While some scholars have argued that the localism of the Thai village is focused inwardly, on protecting the community from intrusions from the outside, the author sees the Rural Thai as outwardly focusing. The people of his study village tried to draw the Thai state into their own framework of meaning, though they wanted to do so with local people. Thus, their localism consisted of appraising political candidates based as much as possible on their connections to their village.
But “local” can be a variable concept. One candidate for mayor had lived in the community for 20 years but many voters still considered him to be an outsider. Some candidates from the village, local people, were not appreciated because their voting patterns showed that they had not provided proper support for community issues. Thaksin’s sister-in-law, a candidate for office, had no real local connections and she received only three votes, but another person running for a position, who had business connections in the village, did much better. Walker’s point is that the voters were capable of sophisticated discrimination in their interpretations of what “local” really meant to them.
The voters of Baan Tian also placed a high value on the ability of politicians to secure access to external resources. While the localism of candidates could be defined, in part, by their abilities to obtain appropriate outside funding, the issue is normally clouded by constraints against vote buying. Appropriate ways of supplying funding for local projects include the politician providing his or her own personal funds.
Such personal funding demonstrates that the candidate is well connected, has access to resources, and is politically sophisticated in distributing largess. Such funds might appropriately be used for donations to temples, payments for people to attend meetings, personal loans, support for the education of children, or assistance for development projects.
While the candidate should have the personal resources to provide help for local causes, he or she must use those resources appropriately—within the purview of the rural constitution, that is. One candidate for mayor, a Dr. Tenet, distributed appropriate amounts of funds in order to gain a reputation as a wealthy individual who was well-connected and who could benefit the constituency. However, numerous voters suspected his motives: he had invested so much in trying to win the election, he would want to get too much back if he won, they felt.
Another factor in the thinking of the Rural Thai is their concern about the real qualifications of candidates. Some voters expect their representatives to be well educated; they should be better qualified than the old-school politicians. These people want elected officials to speak effectively, to manage budgets well, and to make good decisions. They hope for honest, capable representatives. And they expect that, while their officials may make personal gains from being in office, their graft should be appropriate and reasonable, not excessive.
Former Prime Minister Thaksin was from Chiangmai, a major city of northern Thailand, the nearest metropolitan area to the author’s study village. But support for Thaksin in 2006 was not unqualified in the author’s village. While many people voted for Thaksin’s party, the author describes several instances where that support was quite weak locally.
Walker concludes that the proponents of the 2006 coup, the opponents of Thaksin’s reign, dangerously oversimplify the issues when they categorize his support in rural Thailand as based on simplistic peasants who need to be better educated in order for democracy to survive in the country. It’s much more complex than that.
Walker, Andrew. 2008. “The Rural Constitution and the Everyday Politics of Elections in Northern Thailand.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 38(1): 84-105