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December 20, 2020

Democracy Without Competition

On the shadowy nature of local politics, the Progressive Movement’s plans to disrupt it, and the Pheu Thai referendum in Chiang Mai.

Thanathorn on the campaign trail in Bueng Kan / Progressive Movement

Good morning. I had hoped to send this out earlier, but here we are on the morning of Election Day, with a piece about what’s going to happen.
It’s a little late, but it’s still relevant. Let’s get into it.

When I was studying Japanese politics, an essential read was Ethan Scheiner’s Democracy without Competition in Japan.

Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has basically been in power continuously for 70 years, having only lost elections twice. This makes the LDP the most successful political party in the modern era, despite its unpopularity.

In the book, Scheiner explains this bizarre phenomenon. He concludes that the LDP’s success is in part because of Japan’s budget allocation system and how it warps local politics.

Japan’s budget allocation is centralized, meaning the budget for the rural town of Mima is decided in Tokyo. This also means that as a Mima voter, the only way you can get roads, bridges, and schools, is if your local member of parliament can bring some of that money home.

This leads to a very transactional kind of politics. Of course, politics everywhere is transactional — voters send politicians to office, and in return, they get the policies that they want. But, in Japan, clientelism takes this to a different level.

Instead of delivering on specific policies, MPs ensure there’s money to build local infrastructure. That’s not bad per se, but this money was only possible because the MPs are close to those in the seats of power — they’re either in the LDP, or close to the LDP.

Of course, this creates an extreme barrier to entry for the opposition. Since they aren’t in the majority, they can’t control budget allocation, and their candidates can never win local elections.

If you follow Thai politics, all of this should look eerily familiar.

Thailand’s budget allocation process is also centralized. Its constituency MPs often come from powerful local families, and if you want the budget to flow, those MPs should also be in government.

But there’s an additional layer of chumminess here.

Local budget and personnel are controlled by the Ministry of the Interior. Unlike Japan, Thailand’s local offices outside Bangkok are almost all appointed. Even governors, the most powerful official in each province, are unelected and shuffled around on the ministry’s whims.

The only substantial elected local office is that of provincial administrators (PAO), who are often from influential families. In many provinces, a family would have its members as the PAO admin, municipal admin, and district MP.

Although most PAO admins are not partisan or ideological, they almost always align with those in government. This is a result of sheer practicality — money flows from Bangkok, and both parties benefit from their relationship. Influential families get preferential treatment from government authorities and in return, they offer local support when asked.

With government support, offered through various Ministry levers, and each family’s expansive network of village chiefs and hua-kanaen (a euphemism for vote buying), influential families wield powerful political machines that ensure they win every election.

Sure, machine politics exist elsewhere. For example, candidates in New York and Nevada have to make the rounds and appeal to interest groups and unions. But in those places, candidates win them over using policies, not money.

These factors mean there’s barely any real opposition in PAO races, and when there are, they’re met with insurmountable disadvantages and when necessary, thuggish violence.

Future Forward’s 2nd act

While Future Forward came into the spotlight during the 2019 national elections, they always had plans to disrupt local elections.

In the words of Thanathorn, local officials have vast sums of money to drastically improve their provinces, but they never do. They campaign on platitudes — we’ll make the province better! — but the end results are often marginal improvements. Sure, things get a little better, but there aren’t any actual policy platforms or concrete plans.

The Progressive Movement, the renamed extra-parliamentary offshoot of Future Forward, is now fielding dozens of PAO candidates across the country. Their goal is to address the aforementioned problem: PAO admins are entrenched influential families that pretty much do nothing other than privateering off their positions.

Progressive Movement candidates will follow the same playbook Future Forward used last time. They will run on a slate of visionary policies — a contrast to watered down platitudes of their opponents, with the hope that history will repeat itself. Upstart candidates will win in races no one expects them to, and they will get to demonstrate that a new kind of politics is possible.

The only problem is, it looks like lighting won’t strike twice.

If we look at election data, Future Forward decisively won among early voters[1]. These voters are from the provinces, but don’t live or work there. So when the time comes to vote, they vote early because they’re not home on Election Day.

But this time, these early voters aren’t in the equation.

The Election Commission will hold elections on December 20th, a weekend stuck between two other holiday weekends — a weekend where no one can feasibly come home. And bizarrely, those that can’t make it aren’t allowed to vote early.

This is outright voter suppression, and it’s orchestrated by those who are supposed to make voting easier.

That’s not all. There’s also the problem of local influence networks.

In 2019, when Future Forward did manage to dethrone entrenched local candidates, it was almost always because of the early vote. These voters aren’t swayed by hua-kanaen or poo-yai baans. They’re not hanging around at home and no one can come over to buy their votes.

In fact, vote buying is much more effective among the local population — the only ones who get to vote in this election. That’s to say, this race very much favors the establishment: the candidates with ties to the Ministry, the candidates with ties to the local political machine. And there’s no wave of turnout to overpower these dark forces.

Today, there will be candidates from Progressive Movement in 42 provinces, all of them facing an uphill battle. The group itself gave a conservative estimate, expecting to win a quarter of these races.

Personally, with all these factors in play: the shadowy local forces and the bizarre exclusion of all early voters, I don’t see the Progressive Movement winning big, or winning at all. 10 is definitely on the high end of possibilities, with the more realistic number being around 4.

The Chiang Mai race

In any other year, the Chiang Mai PAO race wouldn’t even matter. The reigning Buranupakorn clan has been in power for over a decade: with Boonlert and his brother as PAO admins, and other family members as municipal admins and district MPs.

The family also runs a lucrative business. It operates real estate companies that clearly benefit from the clan’s grip on political power in Chiang Mai — a gross conflict of interest. But so far, no challenger has come close to dethroning Boonlert.

However, 2020 is full of surprises.

In the past, Boonlert and the Buranupakorn clan have run with the implicit support of Pheu Thai, in fact, the niece is a Pheu Thai MP. But this time, Pheu Thai decided to officially field its own candidate, Pichai Lertpongadisorn, a former senator who is virtually unknown.

Despite Chiang Mai being the Pheu Thai capital, all signs pointed to Boonlert coasting to victory. But then, Thaksin decided to insert himself into the race.

In a desperate and clingy letter, Thaksin begged voters to support Pichai over politicians who “abandoned him.” He went on to say how sad he would be if Chiang Mai voters abandoned him too.

The problem is, neither candidates are remotely good. Boonlert is corrupt and has been in office for far too long. Meanwhile, Pichai and his aides have been caught destroying evidence in the Red Bull case.

On the policy front, both candidates are running on platitudes, and honestly, I don’t see how they would govern any differently.

If I had to vote in the race, I would struggle to vote for either candidate.

It’s also unclear why Pheu Thai even entered the race to begin with. There isn’t much of an upside. The party risks losing in its hometown as well as damaging its own reputation and Thaksin’s. And if it wins, it wins in Chiang Mai. No surprises there.

Thanapol Eawsakul, the Same Sky Books publisher, suggests looking at the race instead as a referendum on Pheu Thai.

A vote for Pichai, the candidate who flew to meet Thaksin and kiss the ring, would be a vote for the old Pheu Thai.

A vote for Boonlert, in his view, would be a vote for change.

Yes, Boonlert himself does not represent change in anyway, but a rejection of Thaksin could usher Pheu Thai in a different direction. A direction where Thaksin doesn’t call all the shots, doesn’t meddle in the party’s affairs, and most importantly, a direction where Pheu Thai becomes an actual institution, not a family business.

A Boonlert win would prove that Thaksin is fallible and there is a path forward for the party without him.

As someone who despises Boonlert and the politics he stands for, I dread to vote for him. But Thanapol is right. If this race is truly a referendum on Pheu Thai, the choice is clear.

While I’m not a Pheu Thai supporter, there’s no doubt that a healthy Pheu Thai is beneficial to everyone. A strong democracy needs strong parties. It’s about time Pheu Thai became one.

The Chiang Mai race really is fifty-fifty. And in a way, it’s tragic that the most watched PAO race isn’t about how people’s livelihoods can be improved by better politics — instead, it’s about Thaksin, and how you feel about him, as most things politics have a tendency to be.

Let’s hope it isn’t that way for much longer.

  1. Duncan McCargo and Anyarat Chattharakul, Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party, p. 62–64. ↩︎