It looks like the upcoming elections in Thailand will be very entertaining. Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan has the story.
Let the fun times begin!
by H. Numan
I reported about the elections in The Netherlands, and now it’s Thailand’s turn. Prime Minister Prayuth sort of dissolved the cabinet and announced elections. That date is now published: the 14th of May. The day before, he will officially dissolve the government. So he is not a caretaker prime minister, but acting prime minister. Great. That means we’re in for a LOT of fun! Hope you still got your colorful shirts; you’re going to need them. Let me explain.
A Thai prime minister can call for elections whenever he wants. Nothing unusual here; many prime ministers have the same privilege. They usually do that when they consider the moment to be right, for themselves. Sometimes they have to call for elections simply because they run out of options. A cabinet, even a Thai cabinet, usually has term limits. They may find it difficult to postpone the inevitable. Just look at how the British Conservative Party tries to stay in power. At the moment it’s more an Italian operetta than anything else. Prayuth is having some problems in the popularity department and with the clock. He survived a vote of no confidence. By survive I mean: found a legal loophole to invalidate it. Don’t get me wrong; Prayuth is fairly popular among the population. It’s the opposition who really hate him.
And that brings me to the fun part:
You know who’s running again? Yup, the Thaksins. Not one, but no fewer than three this time. All his children are running for office. That surprised me a bit, because so far they didn’t appear to be interested in politics. Daddy got three children to run for prime minister. One is sure to win, the others are to support the winner. He also announced he wants to end his voluntary exile, and return to Thailand. Even if that means going to jail. He is in his seventies right now, and has spent well over a decade in exile. That means he is certain of victory. With good reason, mind you. Every time a Shinawatra runs for office they win by a landslide.
You see, the democratic system in Thailand is a quite different from the West. A vote is worth Bt. 500 or $15. That a big difference. Buying votes is illegal, it also is expected. Another big difference is how parties work. Yes, we do have a plethora of parties here. But parties themselves don’t matter. It’s the big shots in a party who matter. Parties merge, split, work together, become enemies or friends, according to the whims of the big shots. Very few parties are older than a couple of years, and almost all have a very local power base. In that district or province they hold an absolute majority, but anywhere else almost no presence at all.
When Thaksin Shinawatra became prime minister his cabinet was the first cabinet in the history of Thailand to be a single party cabinet. That was because at that moment Thaksin was already a billionaire and merged many smaller parties into his own. Yes, he was hugely popular. Even without mergers his party would have been the biggest by far. Smaller parties simply merged to get a slice of the pie. Better something than nothing, right?
Voters expect some compensation as well. I spoke with a rural voter who said: of course they’re bribing us. We’re not that stupid! Both the Pheu Thai Party and the Democrats offer us a new four lane road to the village. We know the Phu Yai Baan (elected village headman, sort of mayor) will pocket the money, and his friends will build that road. If we vote for Pheu Thai, we get at least a two lane road. If we vote for the Democrats we get nothing. Who would you vote for?
I wrote this long ago, but it is still true today. Somehow the big shots of Thai politics never seem to understand that they have to deliver at least something of their many electoral promises. That means problems. Just about everybody over the age of six expects a landslide victory for one of the Shinawatras. They wouldn’t run, and certainly not three together, if they weren’t certain of victory. Their secret is no secret at all. They simply deliver what they promise. And why shouldn’t they? It’s tax money anyway.