In this webinar, Dr Napon Jatusripitak, Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, examined the role of patronage politics in Thailand, and the implications for the upcoming Thai general election and beyond.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
16 March 2023, Thursday – This webinar explored how patronage politics has not only survived but thrived in Thailand. Drawing on fieldwork involving in-depth interviews with politicians and vote canvassers in 2019-2020, Dr Napon highlighted how patronage politics operates and how it has adapted to changing contexts in Thailand, including under a hybrid military-authoritarian regime. Dr Napon also discussed the implications that patronage politics will have for the upcoming Thai general election and beyond. The webinar attracted 71 attendees.
Dr Napon observed that patronage politics is not unique to Thailand but rather the main currency of electoral competition in many parts of the world. The speaker claimed that the 2019 Thai general election marked the resurgence of patronage politics. He recounted a personal experience at a political rally where the attendees were being paid by local party leaders to attend the rally. Drawing on fieldwork and personal observation, Dr Napon argued that the presence of a military regime seeking to stay in power through elections contributed to the political success and survival of dynasties and factions associated with patronage politics.
Dr Napon conducted the research in 2019 and 2020 mostly in the north and northeast provinces by interviewing politicians, vote canvassers and other relevant stakeholders. Dr Napon defined patronage politics as a mode of electoral mobilisation whereby politicians offer selective, discretionary and sometimes contingent benefits to individuals or groups in society in order to gain electoral support.
In Thailand, patronage politics has a long and complicated history. Vote buying, in particular, has been prevalent in the media and in the public discourse. In the context of scholarly research, vote buying has also been linked to corruption and unstable governments. Yet, despite the fact that Thai elections have been plagued by vote buying for at least three decades, vote buying merely represents the tip of the iceberg and thus cannot be viewed in isolation. Thai election campaigns, particularly in rural areas, rely on informal networks of electoral middleman known as vote canvassers. Vote canvassing networks typically comprise of local government officials, politicians, community leaders and other influential figures who can sway voters in their localities by using a mix of material inducements, intimidation, personal reputation and local contributions.
Vote canvassing networks can either be assembled in an ad hoc manner shortly before elections or derived from local patronage systems that are maintained year-round by political dynasties or local factions. They tend to be hierarchical in nature, mapping closely to administrative boundaries. During elections, political parties and candidates often compete for the loyalty of individuals who control these vote canvassing networks. Yet, according to Dr Napon, although vote canvassing networks remain a prominent mode of campaigning, they do not always operate in the same manner or with the same level of effectiveness.
Dr Napon illustrates that even in a landscape where voters expect political parties to take an ideological stance or propose policies, political parties still need to secure the support of factions or candidates with the most reputable networks in their respective localities. However, at the local level, the methods used by vote canvassers to gain support can become quite personal rather than purely transactional. Even when cash handouts during elections remain the key ingredients, the vote canvassers’ approach is often more nuanced than a simple bribery. Therefore, vote canvassers are not merely guns-for-hire. They should instead be viewed as strategically positioned community leaders who are equipped with resources, skills and personal connections to effectively serve as local influencers for mobilising support for candidates during elections.
Due to decentralisation and fragmentation of local governance in Thailand, these vote canvassers—many of whom are locally elected officials—must often act as champions of local interests. Dr Napon stated that this opens up the possibility of factional alignments at the village and sub-district levels with more intense competition. As a result, individual voters gain more bargaining power to a certain degree. But at the national level, an opposite trend has become apparent—only a small number of political factions and families control most of the local organisations that make up vote-canvassing networks across Thailand. This trend, according to Dr Napon, has been reinforced by the junta’s experiment with electoral politics in 2019.
Military-backed constitution introduced after the May 2014 coup diluted the bargaining power of political parties through MMA electoral system. Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) benefitted from the uneven playing field rooted in authoritarian legacies during the 2019 general election. However, PPRP did not inherit organisational linkage to ordinary citizens that usually accompany former authoritarian ruling parties elsewhere. Thus, the most viable strategy was to coax provincial leaders, dynasties, and factions who controlled vote canvassing networks. Dr Napon found that PPRP had exclusive access to state power which enabled them to persuade, coerce or offer protection to targeted individuals who had potential.
PPRP’s strategy was to identify the most prominent factions or families in each province who had the best vote canvassing networks and make an offer that would be difficult to refuse. Ultimately, power was not vested in party leadership or the executive committee but in elite settlements involving factions within the party and actors affiliated with NCPO. Dr Napon observed that this arrangement planted the seeds of intense factional turmoil and party instability that would consequently bring changes in party leadership and large-scale defection by its MPs.
Under such an arrangement, provincial leaders and factions find opportunities to safeguard their own power and networks by exploiting the resources and protection the regime had to offer. Therefore, patronage politics has thrived under an electorally vulnerable military regime that is unable to create its own networks and linkages to the electorate. Dr Napon also highlights that the case of PPRP represents a trade-off between short-term electoral performance and robust party organisations which fits the pattern of “Strong Patronage, Weak Parties”. Dr Napon concluded that it is unlikely for a military-backed party to return to power through the same pathway as in 2019 election. However, this could also lead to more extreme forms of authoritarian interventions or elite settlements with actors or parties that come to power through elections, under conditions agreeable to the Thai conservative establishment.
Questions posed to Dr Napon by the audience concerned wealth inequality and its effect on political participation, specific actions for eradicating patronage system, role of foreign policy in election, differences in patronage system across different regions in Thailand, younger voters’ and their impact on the culture of patronage, factions in PPRP, Shinawatra-related politicians and their current influence, specifics on local political dynasties, and the impact of Southern regions on the general election.