Here comes the election fest again. Politicians are busy grouping, merging, parting, and regrouping, while calls for free and fair election are made and echoed.
Vote buying has become part of the national agenda. And the usual culprits for the country's underdeveloped democracy, filling parliament with wretched politicians, capitalists and the mafia are poor people.
Hence the Prime Minister's Office's campaign T-shirts that read: ‘Good People Do Not Sell Votes'.
Hence the Election Commission's full-paged newspaper advert that says: ‘We, all Thai people, refuse to sell our votes.'[i]
And hence an Election Commissioner: "We cannot blame the people, because they have not been adequately educated about vote selling and democracy."[ii]
Selling and buying votes has been made a matter of good vs. evil, educated vs. ignorant, and a problem of individual morality that can be solved with heavy PR campaigns, instead of being seen as a result of economic, social and political conditions.
Loathing and condemning the practice are the elite and middle class whose lives benefit from salaries, bonuses, all kinds of welfare and opportunity. In the political sphere, the elite can access and control everything for their own benefit, including state mechanisms, resources and capital, while the middle class are loyal, following the game-plan and sharing some of the pie.
The poor live on their 100-200 baht daily wages, or the uncertain income from agriculture. These people have never had a say in anything, be it the means of production, access to resources, and state services. And their representatives in parliament hardly represent them in their plight.
Economically and politically desperate, they get paid for their votes. What else could they expect even from ‘good, ideal' politicians? They cannot help voting for politicians who can offer immediate help in their everyday life, such as providing services for their families and communities, when they have no one else to turn to.
But on the day that they exercise their equal rights with the others, they are branded for selling their votes.
When the Thai Rak Thai party ran its 2001 election campaign promising policies for poor people, it won 9 million votes. Having implemented those policies, it garnered 19 million votes in the 2005 election.[iii] This shows what poor people want: politics that has them high on the agenda.
Yet again, the privileged never learn from what the poor have to say. Because they prefer policies that they think will benefit them, the poor are accused of being addicted to populism.[iv]
The fact that one party won a landslide victory for its policies might have been one factor contributing to the coup d'état.[v] The proportional representation or party-list system in which people vote for parties whose policies they like has been changed to regional representation in eight clusters of provinces which tends to favour the choice of individuals rather than policies. The clear prescription of fundamental state policy guidelines in the 2007 charter renders the policies of political parties meaningless. Because the charter has an interim provision that candidates have to hold party membership for only 30 days before an election, media coverage of politicians changing parties and being bought and sold is boring people; all this undermines political parties and renders democracy elusive and beyond hope, particularly for the poor, just as it was before the 1997 charter.
Meanwhile, the people's economy is not improving. Information is being tampered with, and liberties and freedoms are compromised by martial law. Money is still important for the poor in making decisions to elect their MPs.[vi]
The problem of vote buying therefore cannot be assumed to be a problem of the individual, with the people vilified as greedy for immediate returns and subject to the patronage system, while the elite makes heavy use of the patronage system themselves.
The attempts of the interim government and the junta to solve the vote buying problem by spending massive budgets on PR campaigns, passing preventive/suppressive laws, or training hundreds of thousands of democracy volunteers are illusions that mask the real problem.
In the author's view, vote buying and selling is not so much of a problem of Thailand's democracy as a reflection of the unequal and unjust structure that makes democracy for the poor worth just a few hundred baht or petty services from politicians.
The public needs to try to understand politics in broader terms, and needs to change the way they look at the poor. All it needs to solve the problem of vote buying is a just society for the poor. And the poor must not entrust their hopes to anybody else, but must build their own movements to pressure political parties and the elected government for political reform to make democracy really beneficial to everyone.
It is important that society moves forward in the course of democracy, not yielding to interruptions by any dictatorial forces, so that the people can learn to live in real democracy.
And then democracy will be worth more than a few hundred baht.
Note: In memory of Mr Nuamthong Praiwan who sacrificed his life for democracy and human dignity.
[i] Thaipost, Oct 25, 2007.
[ii] Interview with EC member Sumeth Upanisakorn about ABAC poll ‘National agenda that people want for the next government', (Thaipost, Oct 22, 2007)
[iii] Proportional representation, Matichon, Oct 26, 2007.
[iv] Tavee Mee-ngeun, Resurrecting populism, Matichon, Oct 25, 2007.
[vi] 64.6% of respondents in ABAC's poll will vote in return for money or other inducements, (Thaipost, Oct 22, 2007)