In The News

In Thailand: The Complexities of Vote-Buying

December 19, 2007

As Thailand approaches national elections, the government and election commission express increasing concern that the process will be subverted by massive vote-buying. Based on my experience in previous elections, that concern is probably justified.

Over the past decades, there have been numerous attempts to combat vote-buying in Thailand, but none have been very successful. In the latest initiative, the government has instituted a program that enlists local leaders ” the very people most likely to be engaged in vote-buying ” to turn in people who sell their votes for a reward. This program, like past ones, is unlikely to be successful and it is surely unfair.

Although illegal, vote-buying is generally accepted by most people in Thailand as a normal part of the political process. Like buying a pirated DVD, jay-walking or speeding, it is not viewed as a serious moral wrong. In this political climate, changing the way people view vote-buying may ultimately be a more effective and sustainable means of reducing its influence in Thai elections than punitive legal sanctions.

The definition of “vote-buying” is a murky concept legally, culturally and morally. Certainly, the provision of cash in exchange for a vote is “vote-buying,” but what about the provision of a gift? Most people might view a candidate that handed out bottles of whiskey as buying votes, but what about the gift of a pen or calendar that had the candidate’s name on it? When does a gift become an economic enticement? And what of the candidate that hands out bags of rice”with a value equivalent to a bottle of whiskey”as charity for poor people? Is that buying votes?

In some countries, campaigning itself can be viewed as vote-buying, especially when some candidates have access to substantially more money than others. And what of the candidate that promises to fix the road in a village if the village votes for him? Is it overt vote-buying, or responsible and accountable democratic governance?

Almost all legal codes define vote-buying as the provision of cash for a vote, but in many countries in South and Southeast Asia the buying and selling of votes is morally and culturally accepted in practice. Here, the dominant influence in local politics (and sometimes national politics) remains the traditional “feudal” social structure, or patron-client relationships. Parties and ideologies are of comparatively little importance in elections, where family, clan, or merely one’s ability to deliver patronage is most important. In this environment a cash payment or gift has an extra value beyond its nominal value. It is a physical symbol of the ties of duty and obligation that bind both patron and client. In this sense it represents the patron’s promise to provide security –economic and physical– in exchange for the loyalty of the client. Acceptance of the gift in this context is both an acknowledgement of fealty to the boss, and a reaffirmation of membership in the larger group.

Poor rural voters have little power and little money. In many instances their only safety net is the traditional patron-client social structure of their community. Because of their dependence, they are a popular target of vote-buyers, who contract their support through their local leader, or patron. The poor voters end up stuck between the boss on one side and the government on the other.

Rejecting a gift can be seen as rejecting the group, which can result in social ostracism. Rejecting a gift can also be seen as rejection of the candidate, and an intention to vote for someone else. It can even result in an entire family being cut off from patronage. Children may have difficulty getting into schools, adults getting jobs or business licenses or health care: all examples of costs well beyond the value of selling a vote. In some situations, refusing a gift can be met with physical intimidation or beatings.

More fair, and ultimately more successful and sustainable, would be to change people’s perception of vote-buying, to convince voters that politicians who engage in vote-buying are committing a serious moral wrong and evidence they should not be electable. As politicians realize this change in public perception, they would have increasing incentives to use their resources in ways more conducive to accountable and democratic governance — like increased spending on grassroots political organizing and increased policy development and dissemination.

To read “Observing Elections in Thailand,” a guide for international elections observers by Tim Meisburger, please click here.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes.

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