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Democracy for sale

Political circles in Thailand have been busy discussing the results of a recent ABAC poll that revealed that almost 2 in 3 voters were prepared to sell their votes. The poll, which surveyed almost 0.006% of the national population and was conducted in 19% of the kingdom's provinces, also found that over 4 in 5 voters would not report cases of vote-buying to the authorities.

It is not clear whether the poll shows a situation that is improving or declining and informed opinion is divided on how far such widespread connivance at vote-buying will affect the forthcoming general election on 23 December.


However, it seems that Deputy Prime Minister Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin will have his work cut out as head of the newly formed committee to suppress vote-buying.


Inside observers, however, suspect that the former head of the Council for National Security is not as concerned with the results of this poll as he is by another poll whose results are being kept from public view.


This second poll, Prachatai has learned, targeted politicians, and since the survey population included almost all past, present and prospective MPs, its findings are thought to be much more significant. (The exceptionally high response rate was achieved by the simple expedient of offering a purple note to everyone returning a completed questionnaire.)


With respect to questions that are common to the two polls, the findings show a high level of consistency. Politicians expect that most voters will accept bribes and turn a blind eye to vote-buying, which is just what voters say.


However, questions about the politicians' own behaviour show a level of venality that surpasses even that of the voters. When asked if their choice of political party was determined by the financial ‘contribution' they expected from the party they were joining, a large majority said yes. This was even true of politicians who said they were too busy and left such decisions to their wives. A follow-up question showed that the wives were also most persuaded by cash.


Virtually no prospective MP thought that the policies of a party were a significant factor on choosing to join that party. This finding coincides with the comments made by some political parties at a recent meeting on compulsory licensing (CL). When party representatives were asked to state their party's policy on this issue, they were happy to express support. But most added the rider that any decision should be left to the next elected government, and the situation by then may have changed. Clearly Thai political parties change their policies to suit circumstances, rather than use policy to change the situation.


It would obviously be a foolish politician who considered a party's policy platform (where these exist) in choosing a party, when policies can so easily change. The obvious consequence is that voters must be in the same position. Even if a voter can find out what a party's policy is, it is futile to vote on that basis, since the policy may last no longer than the election campaign.


A question on whether the politicians themselves would report cases of vote-buying revealed some confusion among respondents. Virtually all said they would report cases of vote-buying by their opponents as a matter of course, and prima facie evidence of wrong-doing was not considered to be necessary. But when it came to their own party, even the possibility of vote-buying was denied. ‘Vote-buying can be very expensive. Where could I get the money to do that?' wrote one respondent, who in answer to an earlier question had reported he would join any party that offered him 50 million baht to stand.


While these survey results must discourage anyone with an interest in the development of democracy in Thailand, it is thought that Gen Sonthi has been able to take heart in the responses to questions on national security. When asked if they would be prepared to vote for the draft Internal Security Act, a majority of politicians (at least among those who claimed to have heard about the matter) said that they would support the measure ‘under the right conditions'.


In an unfortunate oversight, the questionnaire failed to ask further what these ‘conditions' might be. But in the context of the other survey findings, most analysts believe that it is not difficult to guess. The big question, however, is whether the ISOC budget, vast and secret as it is, will be sufficient to satisfy these ‘conditions'.

About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).

And if you believe any of those stories, you might believe his columns