MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR, Nikkei Post, Asia regional correspondentApril 30, 2023 09:00 JST
Even the Supreme Court of Thailand, an accommodating partner of military governments, realized that the election rules can only be bent so far. To allow the generals to dilute further the strong provincial vote risks a defection from an already discounted electoral process. Revised rules maintaining the strength of the collective provincial veto aids the Thaksin family and the Thai Pheu Thai opposition party, but only up to a point. The provincial political Dons know the value of their combined influence. Imperfect information in the pricing of political support has not been an issue in Thai “democracy” for a very long time.
On the whole, the assertion of the rural provinces for a larger share of the pie in exchange for their support — is a healthy democratic development, even if potentially distorting economic policy principles.
The following Nikkei report provides a rare insight to rural clout. One is tempted to believe that the strength of rural constituencies in Japan might be a unspoken comparison upon which to base analysis.
The student movement as well as the generals are the most diminished by a rural cohesion behind any single opposition leader. Father Thaksin knows that truth the most intimately.
BANGKOK — Influential provincial figures and their networks have become more critical to the prospects of political parties in the upcoming general election, because the revised election system gives more weight to constituencies in rural areas.
A total of 500 seats are being contested in the lower house, with 52.2 million Thais aged 18 and older registered for the voting on May 14.
In the second national poll under the 2017 constitution, constituency seats have been increased to 400 from 350 in 2019. The remaining 100 party list seats are allocated to reflect the overall number of ballots cast for each party.
Constituency seats in the 76 provinces outside Bangkok have increased to 367 from 320. This increases the clout of provincial political leaders, who are expected to play a more prominent role in the hustings.
“The locus of electoral competition has shifted to constituencies, where candidates backed by money and control over local patronage networks tend to dominate the contest,” Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singaporean think tank, told Nikkei Asia.
There are thought to be more than 50 deeply-entrenched figures with strong political and economic ties outside the capital. They are typically patriarchs of influential regional clans; some are running in the election themselves, while others throw the strength of their networks behind the candidates they are supporting, including family members.
“They are like owners of the province, and they move towards the party where the political winds are blowing,” Isra Sunthornvut, a former Democrat Party parliamentarian, told Nikkei. Isra said some are considered “tier one” candidates because they are well-known locally, command a strong canvassing network and can tap other resources. Some are already members of parliament.
Competing political parties are playing up their respective lists of clan leaders and heads of patronage networks as campaigning enters the final stages. They include Palang Pracharath, Bhumjaithai and the Democrats, who were all part of the outgoing governing coalition, and Pheu Thai, the largest opposition group.
Even new political parties concede that the personal touch and organic bonds count for much in the provinces.
“For constituency MPs, what is important for us is selling the candidate and not just selling the policies,” Tida Yingcharoen, director of the policy center of Thai Sang Thai, a new party, told Nikkei.
“Name and face-recognition are important when the candidate campaigns in local markets, so parties have bought tier one candidates because they know what matters,” she said.
A few such influencers are regarded as bellwethers by Thai media to gauge the political mood of voters in the provinces, where local ties and the personal touch can trump the national policies parties roll out.
This underbelly of Thai politics goes back partly to the Cold War when the Southeast Asian nation was a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War. Thailand benefited from billions of dollars in U.S. assistance that flowed into infrastructure development. Much of the first generation of provincial godfathers emerged at that time to serve as local intermediaries.
Some seasoned observers believe these formidable provincial networks are essential to political parties that cannot rely on policy platforms alone to gain election.
“Even if political parties are confident in their ideological and policy appeals, they still want to depend on local networks,” said Michael Montesano, a veteran scholar of Thai political culture and author of a forthcoming book about Bangkok’s understanding of the provinces.
“Bhumjaithai and Palang Pracharath illustrate the expectations that having local people of influence does matter,” he said.