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The Misunderstood Thai Voter

October 7, 2009

For close to two decades, I have worked in Asia and Africa on programs that support elections and democracy, and nowhere but Thailand have I heard democracy itself disparaged so frequently. It is common in Bangkok to hear prominent academics question whether the average Thai is educated enough for democracy, while pundits in the media portray rural villagers as simpletons easily influenced by local strongmen, or suggest their votes or loyalty can be bought for a pittance. Even politicians whose electoral prospects seemingly depend on the goodwill of the people often describe the masses almost as a commodity that can be bought, sold, or traded. Skeptics doubt that the people of Thailand are ready for democracy, or suggest that democracy is a western import and that only something they call “Thai-style democracy” can work in Thailand.

But when one looks at the facts, one sees this is simply not true. Although Thailand may no longer be the most democratic country in Southeast Asia (that honor probably belongs to Indonesia), The Asia Foundation’s recent national survey of the Thai people seems to reveal that ordinary people in Thailand overwhelmingly (95 percent) believe democracy is the best form of government. In addition, when compared to data from similar polls in the Asia-Pacific region, the Thais have a deeper understanding of the meaning of democracy than almost any other people in Asia. And this is not just affection for a fuzzy concept they can barely comprehend. For example, more than 90 percent of Thais could name some characteristic of a democracy, compared to just 55 percent in Cambodia in 2002, or less than 50 percent in Indonesia in 2003.

I would argue that Thais also have realistic expectations for what democracy can accomplish. They recognize there will be more open political conflict in a democracy, but still prefer it to autocratic forms of government. Although the politically powerful in Thailand often view ordinary Thais as unthinking pawns in their political games, from the survey data, this perception appears to be incorrect. Thais are thinking, and tell us that their voting choice is not influenced by local leaders or religious leaders or cash or gifts. Instead, they say they rationally evaluate candidates and parties and make their choice based on track record or experience. I believe this is a sign of the much deeper and more profound political transformation Thailand is currently experiencing. Like generals who prepare to fight the next war as if it were the last war, Thai politicians often seem to follow a game plan prepared in the 1960s or 70s, failing to realize that the Thai people have changed.

This phenomenon is not unique to Thailand, and may in fact be a normal part of a democratic transition. The difference between conventional political wisdom and reality has been exploited by savvy politicians across Asia (Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Indonesia, and even Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand are a few examples). If the old guard is still playing the game by the old rules, never realizing that the rules of the game have changed, it may surprise them – but should not surprise us – when they lose elections.

Another common misperception in Thailand is that the country is completely polarized, with the red camp on one side and the yellow on the other, a wide gulf separating the two. It is not that simple. Survey findings appear to show about 15 percent of the population call themselves dedicated, loyal members of the red camp, with roughly another 15 percent identifying themselves in the yellow. There is an enormous number (70 percent) that fall somewhere in the middle. That is not to say that those in the middle do not have political leanings or preferences, but as a group they are more like each other than the outliers. This middle group might be viewed as independents, in the sense that based on varying appeals or circumstances, they might be induced to vote either way.

Instead of saying the country is polarized, we might say it is increasingly politicized. Traditional political structures in Thailand were based around the patron/client relationship at the local level with an almost feudal hierarchy above. Now that structure seems to be breaking down. Although the red and yellow movements were originally Thaksinites versus anti-Thaksinites, both movements (while retaining their founding raison d’être) are increasingly ideological. The reds stand for populism, electoral democracy, and majority rule; while the yellows support constitutional monarchy, with strong protection for minority rights, and independent institutions to control corruption.

Although often considered destabilizing, the recent emergence of the red and yellow movements in Thailand can be viewed as a positive step in the country’s democratic transition. Most existing political parties in Thailand were created or evolved out of pre-existing powerful and entrenched interest groups. At the local level, their power remained embedded in traditional patron/client relationships, with political competition primarily inter-elite. In contrast, the red and yellow movements are ordinary people who have joined together to advocate for their interests in the political sphere, which is the very definition of a modern democratic political party, and as such I suspect they are another indicator of democratic development in Thailand.

If my supposition is correct, this transition could have profound effect on political competition in Thailand. In the past, particular families formed political dynasties in some areas and provinces, and in every election could reasonably expect their candidates to be elected based primarily on feudal rather than party loyalty. Consequently, candidates could, and were expected to, change parties based on who offered the most, which increased both their personal wealth and their ability to dole out patronage in their constituency. As voters become increasingly politicized and ideological, the influence of feudal loyalty will wane. In the next election, politicians in areas strongly associated with one color or another who join a party aligned with the predominant color are likely to be returned, but those who shift to a party of the other color in the confident assumption that family loyalty will see them through are likely, in my opinion, to be disappointed.

So what does this snapshot of the Thai electorate mean for parties and candidates? In semi-democracies, political competition is primarily between elites – while in more established democracies public opinion matters, and candidates know it, and we often speak of candidates or parties as “poll-driven.” Thailand, I think, is between these two states; opinion matters to some degree, but politicians remain unsure as to exactly how much. If opinion does matter more now than in the recent past, then our survey can be used – as surveys and polls are in established democracies – to outline and define a winning electoral strategy.

The Thai people long to participate in politics, but right now feel left out of the process. Just one in five says they have some influence on national decision-making, while 80 percent say they have little or no influence. These are almost the lowest findings we have ever recorded for political efficacy in Asia. And, of particular concern for incumbents, 64 percent don’t think their MP addresses the major problems of the constituency in Parliament. These findings clearly suggest that both challengers and incumbents can increase their chances for electoral success by following these simple suggestions: meet often with voters; listen to their problems and concerns; and then explain to them how you will address those concerns in Parliament.

In striking contrast to the current plan to have constitutional amendments drafted by Parliament alone, two-thirds of the Thai public say they want public participation in drafting amendments; and 84 percent say any amendments should be ratified in a referendum rather than by Parliament. Although appointed Senators were introduced with the 2007 Constitution, and there have been proposals to appoint some MPs, the Thai people as a whole overwhelmingly prefer elections for MPs and Senators rather than appointments. Thais also express strong support for political decentralization that enhances participation and democracy. Currently, only Bangkok has an elected governor, and the survey shows that the people in Bangkok like their elected governor, and that the people in other provinces would like to have one too.

The political preferences outlined above are key political pivots that can be used to move the majority in the middle, and some people in both color wings. Support for these issues, while absent from the platforms of any political party, is very deep across all regions, and equally prevalent in those leaning yellow or red. It is very clear that if a political party were to campaign on a platform that emphasized increased public participation in the political process and the direct election of provincial governors, they would be hard to beat in the next election. After all, what politician would not benefit from supporting the people’s right to vote, when that vote will determine their own political future? But, while the people of Thailand increasingly embrace democracy, it remains unclear if the formal political parties have evolved enough to recognize that, in a modern democracy, public opinion matters.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes based in Bangkok. He can be reached at tmeisburger@asiafound.org.

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