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Political reform ha bloody ha

The recent unexpected death of former Prime Minister Gen Prem Tinsulanonda – What?  Yes I know he was 98 but I would have put folding money on him reaching his century, wouldn’t you? As I was saying, the death of Gen Prem has had us reviewing the 1980s when he presided over a series of fractious coalitions in a system of semi-democracy or semi-dictatorship, take your pick.

And it’s déjà vu all over again.

A retired head of the army takes the top job without wasting time and effort on getting elected and plays off self-serving factions of old-style ‘influential person’ politicians, by dangling in front of their venal noses cabinet posts ranked strictly according to the potential for rake-offs.

Prem was good at it. Never bothered with belonging to a party himself. He just kept shuffling the coalition around to keep them in something like decent order and when the squabbling got too much, he called an election on them. It cost him nothing because he never ran. And after the election, there was no way any of the party leaders would be trusted by the others to serve as PM, so a delegation went cap in hand to Si Sao Theves. ‘Pa Prem please come back’.

So has all that ‘Reform before Election’ rhetoric come to this? Has Thai politics not moved on since 1980?

In some respects, it has. Thaksin has to be credited with introducing the novel idea of campaigning on a set of policies attractive to the electorate and the even more unprecedented idea of actually implementing them once he was in power. 

So all parties in the last election felt obliged to produce a wish list, from the predictable ‘increase the minimum wage’ to the more innovative ‘Grab weed’, though it seems that now they’re in power, well, we have to accommodate other parties’ policies and the economic situation doesn’t leave us much room for manoeuvre and excuse after excuse.

But in other respects, no, Thai politics is still stuck in the 80’s.  Look at the current cabinet line-up and count the ex-Pheu Thai and ex-Thai Rak Thai people.  The coup was supposed to eradicate the ‘Thaksin system’, not re-brand it.  And then count the out-and-out criminals among them.  How did this happen?

It’s because every major political player since Prem, including Thaksin, has been working from the same playbook – if you want votes, plug into the patron-client system. 

Now this concept, found pretty much all over SE Asia (well, outside the globalized urban elites), seems not to be understood by outsiders, judging by the ill-informed comments you keep hearing.  ‘If someone offers to buy your vote, then why doesn’t the Thai voter just take the money and then vote for the candidate they like?’ 

Because buying votes isn’t a simple capitalist transaction like buying your groceries from Big C.  It is embedded in a much more elaborate network of obligations and favours.  It’s to do with who turns up at grandma’s funeral with a welcome envelope, and who makes sure dad’s gang gets the job of repainting the school next term break, and who gets the son and heir off with a warning when 3 up, underage, pissed, and on a motorbike with no lights, he runs over someone’s chicken. 

A payment at election time is not the price of a vote; it is a mutual exchange of benefits, resulting from and contributing to a richer, more comprehensive relationship.

Prayut (or more accurately the brains behind him) has been assiduously courting selected peak players in the patronage pyramids around the country.  These patrons in turn have their clients, who have their clients and down and down until you come to the last level of fixer, known as the hua khanaen.

Now here the gullible non-Thai might be forgiven for misunderstanding because the language becomes seriously misleading.  The local media call these people ‘canvassers’.  Cue images of selfless souls with leaflets and rehearsed lines of patter knocking on strangers’ doors. 

Nothing like it. The hua khanaen and the voters know each other.  The hua khanaen may have an official and otherwise benevolent status in the community, like teacher or monk, or maybe the other way - a moneylender, for example.  Patronage systems come in all shades of morality, hence the criminals in the cabinet.

Like them or not, every elected government for generations has been the work of hua khanaen.  So much so that many observers don’t see vote-buying as the real impediment to democracy in Thailand as much as the patronage system itself. 

But maybe not for long. There is reform, real reform, happening.  Maybe even a revolution.

Future Forward claim not to have used hua khanaen in the last election. Nor did they do that much by way of posters and leaflets. They invested heavily in social media and a theory of political change grounded in Gramsci.  And they won big. 

And when one constituency in Chiang Mai had to re-run the vote because the Election Commission threw a fit over the gift of a clock to a monk, they won even bigger, not just increasing their own vote many times, but actually taking away votes from parties like Prayut’s Palang Pracharat with their hua khanaen. And this was not an urban constituency with Facebook-addicted millennial new voters in every Starbucks.

Now when your policy platform includes trimming the military budget and scrapping conscription and challenging the impunity of the judiciary, you can expect the people who have been misgoverning this country for the past 5 years to get a bit sniffy.  But the Trump-sized onslaught of vitriol and harassment that has been directed against Future Forward has been way out of proportion.

Not so much because of their anti-privilege policies, perhaps, but because they have proved that electoral politics does not have to be dependent on the patron-client system. And when you’ve invested billions in precisely that system and your name is a general beginning with P, you’re going to have to do everything you can to stop them.