Institutional Incentives and Informal Local Political Groups (Phuak) in Thailand: Comments on Allen Hicken and Paul Chambers
Nelson, Michael H., Journal of East Asian Studies
Post-1997 Thai politics have been shaped by the effects of two momentous events that occurred almost at the same time: the introduction of far-reaching structural changes by the 1997 constitution, and the appearance of a singularly overbearing and centralizing political leader--Thaksin Shinawatra. To political analysts, this situation has provided uniquely rich opportunities to observe over a number of years whether constitutional engineering had the envisaged effect of restricting the politicians' "undesirable" actions, and whether the intended institutional change was realized. However, the coincidence of constitutional change and the occurrence of Thaksin has also made it necessary to distinguish the effects of structural changes from the effects of the new form of political leadership.
One of the main issues during the political reform process was the desire to make Thailand's governmental system more stable and efficient. A core intention thus was to increase the leadership capability of the prime minister by making his decisions sufficiently independent from his own political party, his coalition partners, and the House of Representatives. This view was expressed in the final report and recommendations of the Democracy Development Committee in April 1995, and it was mirrored by a statement in the "Basic Framework for Drafting the People's Constitution," distributed countrywide for public hearings by the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) in March 1997. (1) This document in particular said that although the prime minister had the legal powers, "he cannot show his leadership in governing the country" because he was under the control of his own party and his coalition partners. (2)
Given this approach, one would assume that Thaksin might have fulfilled the dreams of many who were involved in the political reform and constitution drafting processes. Indeed, important reform advocates initially perceived him in this light. In March 2002, Prawase Wasi, chairperson of the Democracy Development Committee, praised him for having strong leadership potential, albeit with concerns about his attempts to muzzle the mass media. Four years on, however, many of Thaksin's erstwhile admirers, including Prawase, had moved to the camp of his fervent enemies.
Many mainstream academic accounts center on the person of Thaksin. (3) He has been unrivaled in Thailand in his sheer political energy, determination, vision, professionalism, ruthlessness, and network-building capacity, not to mention the incredible financial resources at his personal disposal. Following his success at building the telecommunication company Shin Corp, Thaksin went on to create a juggernaut political party that, based on overwhelming voter support brought about by "populist policies," formed the first single-party government in Thai political history. Until the protests that started in September 2005, he seemed set easily to dominate Thai politics for many years to come, subjugating the constitutional order to his personal need for the centralization of power, if not for more sinister purposes.
As a result, important political actors as well as the dominant public discourse had attributed all problems solely to Thaksin's actions, and thus they saw only one single solution: his removal--from the position of prime minister, from politics, from the country. Most observers probably agreed with the statement of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the chairperson of the Democrat Party, that Thaksin Shinawatra had outgrown Thailand's political and constitutional system. The coup d'etat of September 19, 2006, has, at least temporarily, removed Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party, and thus relieved the pressure they had put on the political order. A new round of constitutional reform will aim at blocking people such as Thaksin from gaining power or preventing them from using it inappropriately. However, the present discourses on the "morality" of political leaders and popular democratization indicate the understanding that legal provisions will always be insufficient in completely excluding opportunist and authoritarian political inclinations.
Allen Hicken's recent article "Party Fabrication: Constitutional Reform and the Rise of Thai Rak Thai" (Journal of East Asian Studies 6, no. 3) is firmly directed against the dominant leadership perspective. It aims at throwing light on institutional (meaning legal-constitutional) factors that "have often been overlooked and undervalued." In doing so, the factor "Thaksin" is systematically replaced by references to Thai Rak Thai (TRT), while existing sociopolitical structures that shape interactions and decisions are left out of the explanatory picture. I am not sure whether this is an advisable strategy if the final aim is to understand how Thai politics operate. In order to provide what I think is a more nuanced view, I will consider four issues. First, what kind of institutional incentives might properly be treated as causal factors for the existence of informal local political groups in Thailand? Second, how can we treat populist policies in the context of leadership? Third, were the constitutional effects that Hicken refers to an intended or unintended outcome of the reform? Fourth, does the author's use of "counterfactuals" to test the significance of institutional incentives actually work?
On the Causes of Informal Local Political Groups (Phuak) in Thailand
Hicken argues that the replacement of multimember constituencies (MMCs, or Bloc Vote) by single-member constituencies (SMCs) served as an important factor in encouraging candidates to campaign on a party-based platform instead of relying on their purely personal connections, as was previously the case. It is said that MMCs "allowed for intra-party competition" and thus confused the voters to the degree that they could not use party labels as a vital piece of information in making their electoral decisions. This situation, then, caused the candidates to establish personal support networks.
First, that MMCs "allowed" for such competition does not mean that it empirically existed on a wide scale. In fact, an important qualification is put in a footnote saying that "Thailand's system did not generate the degree of intra-party competition that occurs in systems where there are fewer seats than co-partisan candidates in a given district." Still, this is an empirical statement, and one would like to know Hicken's data basis for it. In fact, that voters had as many votes as the constituency had members of Parliament (MPs)--thereby eliminating the need for candidates to come first--should have encouraged them to run as a team against their competitors. In a considerable number of cases, I assume, the main candidates of a party even had to "hire" one or two other candidates in order to fulfill the legal requirement that a party had to field as many candidates as there were seats in a constituency. Obviously, in those constituencies there was no intra-party competition at all.
Another restriction on competition was that MP candidates were generated locally and then recruited by the parties. Would candidates have joined a political party that had also recruited their major local political enemies as direct competitors? Finally, election campaigns of individual candidates probably were less about getting as many votes as possible from all voters in a given constituency and more about maximizing the number of votes to be expected given the respective candidates' territorially limited sphere of personal influence in a given constituency. This point also comes into play when Hicken asserts that there would be fewer incentives for using personal networks in elections after the introduction of SMCs. Actually, one would expect more, not fewer, incentives to develop personal networks after the introduction of SMCs. After all, candidates now must gain the highest number of votes for getting elected, while under MMC they only had to observe their number of committed personal vote canvassers (hua khanaen), representing certain numbers of recruited voters, in order to make sure that they would come in at least second or even third. Nevertheless, this increased need for maximizing one's personal networks does not seem to have materialized, as far as MP elections are concerned.
To understand this situation, one needs to see the territorially limited sphere of influence of most candidates in a constituency in combination with the fact that these constituencies were made considerably smaller with the introduction of SMCs. As a result of this redrawing of their boundaries, most constituencies were left with just one single major informal local political grouping (phuak), integrated by a locally rooted leader. (4) At election time, this phuak would then nominate its MP candidate--often the leader himself, a member of his family (trakun), or a close friend--to run for the position of MP under the label of a political party. (5)
Obviously, in order to maintain their positions of power in a constituency, these groups have to put in considerable effort in securing their networks. Hicken is thus correct when he says that "incentives for personal strategies have not disappeared"--although one wonders what these incentives might be, given that the existence of MMCs were seen as the root cause for establishing personal political networks that could be used at election time.
In fact, although the introduction of SMCs might in theory reduce incentives to cultivate personal networks, the constitution of 1997 also introduced competing incentives that strengthen these networks. Such incentives stem from the articles that mandate the government to decentralize powers to local government authorities. (6) By turning all local office holders into elected officials, and giving them considerably more power and money, existing MP candidates and their informal local political groups are provided with substantial incentives to link up with local officials, or draw them into their networks.
First, they can use local politicians for improving their image, for example by acquiring state budgeted funds for the support of local government activities. This makes it more imperative for MPs to belong to the government camp and strengthens their position vis-a-vis local government politicians who approach them for help both before election time and afterward. Simply speaking, the stronger an informal local group is, the more attractive it is for politicians aspiring to run for local office to associate themselves with it.
Second, by drawing local government politicians into their personal networks, MP candidates prevent potential competitors for their seats from accessing vital sources for the recruitment of vote canvassers. After all, elected local politicians--just like the state's elected subdistrict headmen (kamnan), and village headmen (phu yai ban)--represent a successful pool of vote canvassers, and thus voters that can be mobilized by them in order to cast their ballot for the MP candidate. The more links the MP's phuak can establish with locally elected officials, the more they will succeed in closing the constituency-level political space available to potential competitors who try to construct their own voter bases (than siang) in that politico-geographical area. (7)
Obviously, decentralization has thus succeeded in very substantially increasing extra-bureaucratic communications in local areas. (8) But the strengthening of local phuak suggests that local democracy needs more than constitutionally driven decentralization. Democracy means inclusion of people in politics, or giving them access if they wish to do so. Yet, local phuak are strongly exclusionary. As informal groups, it is not even easy for ordinary citizens, and social researchers alike, to recognize their existence. Access is gained by the selective cooptation decided on by the phuak's leaders and his important followers, not by a citizen's submitting an application form to officials working in the local branch office of a political party.
These observations about the effects of decentralization help clarify a claim made by Paul Chambers in his recent contribution in this journal ("Evolving Toward What? Parties, Factions, and Coalition Behavior in Thailand Today," Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 3). The author identifies four arenas in which MPs play games, namely the lead party in a coalition government against the lead party of the opposition camp, inter-party games in a coalition government, factions within parties, and MPs among themselves. The MPs are seen as the "most microlevel" actors. This might be so with respect to the first three arenas. Yet, my earlier description should make clear that Chambers's conceptualization of arenas is very much incomplete since it ignores the arenas MPs are involved in at lower levels of the polity, namely the provinces, constituencies, districts, tambon, and villages.
This omission is not only regrettable because we really need a more realistic and comprehensive conceptualization of local-provincial-regional-national political linkages. More important is that those lower-level arenas impact on the higher-level arenas via the effects they have on the incentives facing MPs. In short, MPs must interactively coordinate their intentions and actions with people in more arenas than the four mentioned by Chambers. For example, faction leader Sanoh Thienthong could leave TRT with some of his family-member MPs from Sakaew province. In their province, this informal local group is so powerful that voters will always elect them, no matter under which party label they choose to run. However, the ordinary members of this faction remained with TRT. The Thai-language daily Matichon (July 13, 2006) quoted a former Thienthong family MP as saying that the Thienthong family had to be heavy-hearted as far as this group was concerned, because the voters still liked TRT's, or the government's, policies. Therefore, if the faction members left for Sanoh's new party, they would have a very hard time campaigning against TRT. This directly concerns not only the voters but, more, the local leaders, who during election time act as vote canvassers in mobilizing the voters. Thus, the MPs also play games with the members of the local informal political group they belong to, and he and those members play games with lower-level canvassers they are connected with but who do not necessarily belong to the phuak's core.
As indicated, all this has an impact on what factions and parties can do. Sanoh could not take his faction out of TRT because its MPs needed their local groups and the canvassers and voters connected with them. When an influential local group leader from Lampang province, Boonchu Trithong, resigned from TRT, he said that he already had consulted with the people of his province and with a number of local leaders. Matichon (September 8, 2006, p. 11) added, "It is undeniable that the fact that 'pho liang Boonchu' ends his political work will have quite a negative impact on TRT's position in the upper north [of Thailand]." (9) In the election of the chief executive of the Provincial Administrative Organization of Mae Hong Son province in 2004, this same Boonchu had played a game with one TRT faction, headed by one of Thaksin's sisters, to have it support one of his relatives for that position (Sayam Rat Weekend, March 19-25, 2004, p. 22). Thus he played games in arenas such as TRT, a faction of the party (probably against a potentially competing faction), his family, a local government authority, his wider phuak of local leaders, and other important citizens.
Hicken states that belonging to TRT was "one of the most valuable assets" of constituency candidates in the 2005 election. However, the reverse was also true: "one of the most valuable assets" TRT had in the 2005 election was the great number of its constituency candidates who had strong local phuak to support them. It was for very good reasons that before the 2001 election, Thaksin had given up his initial attempt of building his political party with new faces alone. He had realized that this strategy would take him ages to have a shot at the position of prime minister. Therefore, he had started systematically to recruit former MPs and other members with established personal networks in the constituencies. This was not only for the reason that there were only 100 party-list MPs but 400 constituency MPs. Although many MPs in 2005 probably benefited from Thaksin's (not TRT's) popularity, they mostly did so on the basis of their existing networks. Had TRT fielded no-name candidates in the constituencies, the party would have lost not only most of these seats but probably also a great number of party-list votes, since there is a correlation between the former and the latter. Similarly, it would only be partially correct to say that TRT had achieved a great majority in the election of supposedly nonpolitical senators in the Senate election on April 19, 2006. In fact, this majority was primarily produced by the local logic of phuak to secure as many political positions in their respective territories as they could. TRT's majority thus mainly is a byproduct of the fact that it has so many phuak-based constituency MPs with their own vote-canvassing networks, and not so much on any party-guided centralized but clandestine election campaign. (10)
It is easy for Hicken to say that since the reform, the "party label has become a more important asset to candidates than at any time in the recent past" (396). Surely, before the constitutional reform, party labels were largely irrelevant altogether. Still, is there a difference between party label (TRT) and leadership label (Thaksin)? Both in the 2001 and the 2005 elections, the person of Thaksin figured a lot more prominently in the campaign than did his party. The slogan was not "TRT can do it," but "Prime Minister Thaksin can do it!" Importantly, this might have had considerably less to do with the reform than the author assumes. Had Thaksin started his party before the constitution came into effect, his overpowering leadership appeal probably would have had a similar effect, though without the additional benefit of party-list votes, and perhaps with the need to spend even more money. In that case, there could have been no reference to "reform" as an explanatory variable. A more open analysis should have tried to untangle these issues, or at least to present them to the readers.
All this does not mean that institutional or legal incentives did not play any role in creating the need for MP candidates to rely on their personal networks for electoral success, rather than on political party labels. However, a more historical and structural approach than the one used by Hicken is needed in order to make sense out of this phenomenon. Since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thai political parties have largely been ephemeral organizations at the national level. At the same time that their names and personnel have constantly kept changing around election time, parties have also been nonentities at the subnational levels of province, district, tambon, and village, l~
During more than seven decades, political parties have thus had no informational value for the voters. To them, the constant factors during election time have been the candidates, not the political parties under whose labels they ran. It has not at all been unusual that voters would re-elect their constituencies' MPs in election after election, although almost every time they ran under different party labels. In a number of elections, the law even allowed candidates to run without any party affiliation as independents. Parties have long been viewed by many as an artificial organizational straightjacket for essentially independent local MP candidates. It is thus not surprising that one of the suggestions for the upcoming round of constitutional reform is to reintroduce the possibility of standing as independents in elections. (12) In fact, the "Basic Framework for Drafting the People's Constitution" distributed countrywide for public hearings by the Constitution Drafting Assembly in March 1997 envisaged that members of Parliament should not be forced to run under party labels. In addition, voters should be able to punish nonperforming parties by electing independent candidates. (13)
In more general terms, if institutional innovations such as a constitution, a parliament, and elections are introduced to a society that lacks political parties, citizens, and a public, what mechanism will be used to generate votes? (14) The answer, obviously, is informal local political groups centered on leaders. From this theoretical angle, such phuak and their vote canvassers (hua khanaen), who mobilize voters based on preexisting and nonspecialized local social relationships, often complemented by vote buying, are the functional equivalents of more democratic electoral structures. (15)
I would therefore suggest that it was this fundamental historical-structural condition that has caused MP candidates to establish and rely on their own informal local political networks or groups for getting elected to parliament. Sociopolitical change during the past decades certainly has altered the situation to a certain extent. Yet, political parties are still ephemeral at the national level and nonexistent at the subnational level, while politically conscious individual citizens do not seem to form the majority of Thai voters. From this perspective, then, the MMC-SMC issue appears to be a rather insignificant electoral-legal detail that cannot serve as a major cause for the weakness of political parties and the prevalence of informal local political groups in Thai politics.
These observations also have implications for the prospects for reform. Institutional changes introduced by the constitution do not necessarily strengthen political parties as such, nor do they encourage a specialized discourse on politics that encompasses the entire territory of the polity and draws citizens into an observing and voting public. One important question therefore still is whether Thai political parties belong to a hybrid political system, or whether it is seen--in practical and normative terms--as a temporary structural form. (16)
Populist Policies, Leadership, Marketing, and the "Size of the Prize"
I agree with Allen Hicken that the introduction of party-list votes is an important innovation. For the first time, voters can express nationally oriented political preferences, if they have any, while previously they were limited to the local voting logic of their respective local leaders. Many voters have used this possibility to split their two votes, that is, to vote for a constituency candidate running under one party, and for TRT in order to support Thaksin. It remains to be seen whether this encourages party-based or rather more leadership-based campaigns, combined with populist approaches. After all, the party-list vote can easily be interpreted as a direct vote for a national leader--not for his party---introducing a "presidential" element into the Thai parliamentary system.
The legitimacy of any previous prime minister was indirect, because he had to pass through the vote of constituency MPs of a coalition-majority in Parliament. Under present conditions, a prime minister such as Thaksin can claim that he has been directly elected by the people and that he had thus symbolically signed a "social contract" with his voters to serve them. (17) Thaksin has used this possibility from the very beginning when he demagogically asked how a few appointed constitution court judges could possibly find him guilty when 16 million voters wanted him to govern them. This situation also added considerable spice to the protests aiming at ousting Thaksin from his position. It is one thing to push out the prime minister of a coalition government. It is a very much different game when Bangkok-based groups try to force out a person who had "directly" been elected by a great majority of voters countrywide.
After the 2001 election, I wondered whether Thaksin's campaign approach might "introduce a new element into Thai political campaigning, forcing competitors in future elections to come up with even fancier material promises than their rivals to stand a chance of victory." I also asked whether any future government could dare abolish programs such as the village fund or the 30-baht health policy "without substantially endangering its standing with the voters." (18) Judging from the Democrat Party's "people's agenda," their platform for the election previously scheduled for October 15, 2006, it seems that they have emulated TRT's approach. (19) Allen Hicken is right when he says that the party-list votes have increased the incentives for a more party-based (or leader-based, or populist) campaign strategy. However, it is an open question whether this has also increased the incentives for more responsive policies, or rather for more irresponsible policies.
This question relates to a vitally important noninstitutional factor affecting the change of campaign strategies. Thaksin is not an ordinary politician, but one of the biggest telecommunications businessmen of Thailand. In fact, he has always maintained that he was an antipolitician who strongly supported the use of business principles in running a political party and government. From this perspective, voters are not any different from customers: you offer them a product that they find desirable, and they will buy it. To be successful in elections therefore implies offering good products to the greatest number of people--what has been called "populist policies." Yet, the key link between the producer and the consumer is marketing. In electoral terms, Thaksin's most important "bold policy initiatives" are therefore not best seen as "social welfare policies aimed at Thailand's rural poor," as Hicken states. They were aimed at all voters and were not at all specifically targeted. Even the debt moratorium for farmers hardly concerned the poor, since they seldom have access to formal credit. Thai Rak Thai devised its marketing measures to have mass appeal, not to please the small fraction of Thai voters who are poor.
Here, former deputy prime minister and minister of commerce Somkhit Chatusripitak is said to have played a crucial role, certainly in the election of 2001. It is noteworthy that Somkhit holds a PhD in Marketing and Management from Northwestern University in the United States and has co-authored two books with marketing guru Philip Kotler. He has pointed out that four pieces of academic work had "great influence on my thinking and indeed my career." One of these pieces was entitled "Political Marketing," authored by Kotler, which applied principles of marketing to the political arena. (20) What we are confronted with here are not so much the effects of some constitutional amendments, such as the party-list vote, but rather the introduction of a very innovative worldview into Thai politics and elections.
This approach was supported by equally noninstitutional ideas rooted in some sectors of academia and politics, namely that policies should no longer be left to the ministerial bureaucracy alone. Rather, politicians ought to have their own policies that the bureaucracy would carry out. This new and, for Thailand's bureaucrats, surprising perspective found its first concrete expression in a group of young academics called the Ban Phitsanulok Group, during the government of Chartchai Choonhavan between 1988 and 1991. (21) They worked to counter bureaucratic inertia and dominance by independently developing government policies, which unavoidably led to many conflicts with the bureaucrats. Ten years later, core members of this group joined Thaksin, and he pushed the idea of the politicians' supremacy over the bureaucrats.
In this context, I shall briefly look at how Hicken deals with incentives for "cross-constituency coordination" that stem from the "concentration of power." Before the 1997 constitution, power is said to have been rather more diffused. One reason was that the soldiers and bureaucrats in the appointed Senate would limit the power of political parties. Another reason was. that parties consisted of many factions. A party leader, therefore, "is more like the first among equals than the head of a political hierarchy." For this reason, there was little incentive for increasing the leaders' headache by enlarging their parties.
This same formulation is found in Hicken's precursor article published in 2002. (22) However, there it serves to describe the position of the prime minister in pre-1997 Thai politics. In that piece, the relatively limited power of the prime minister--the "size of the prize"--is considered an important factor for the lack of coordination incentives. After all, getting into the position of prime minister meant leaving much power to the ministers of one's coalition partners, while the prime minister's own powers mainly extended to the ministers of his own party. Moreover, since this was the case, it was not that important to capture the prime minister position as long as a party leader could make sure that he would join the postelection coalition government.
It would be interesting to know why Hicken seems to have changed his argument. After all, the somewhat greater concentration of power in the position of prime minister following the 1997 constitution is supposed to have altered the incentives for building bigger political parties and thereby reduced their number. Moreover, and probably much more important, we have seen in the preceding paragraphs that Thaksin himself obviously had defined what the "size of the prize" was to be in a much different way than all the other leaders of political parties did. Because his definition of the "size of the prize" was much bigger than it had been in the past, Thaksin had all the incentives to build a party big enough to form the first single-party government in Thai political history.
Constitutional Intentions--Real or Attributed?
My next issue concerns a matter of method. Since Hicken wants to relate certain political effects to legal changes as well as to the motivations of the members of the Constitution Drafting Assembly, he often uses formulations such as "attempts by drafters," the "reform intended," or "change was expected." Unfortunately, he never provides any kind of substantiation, for example by reference to documents, newspapers, or the minutes of the CDA. Hicken simply attributes such motives and anticipated effects to the actors. In fact, in order to consider the behavioral consequences of legal changes, it is not necessary to refer to the motives of historically identifiable actors. Using the researcher's own constructs would be sufficient. However, if one does use such references, they must be grounded empirically. In that case, one would need to consider that not everything that was included in the constitution had a clear-cut connection between problem identification and solution. After all, the CDA was not a collection of experts in the institutional approach of constructing complex webs of incentives. Moreover, the discourse on political reform developed over several years. Some innovations may thus have come about as agreed-upon ideas directed against a status quo seen as problematic, and others as the result of power plays within the CDA, or even as preliminary stipulations without final agreement on what they actually meant because the time of the drafting process ran out. Furthermore, the same institutional innovation might have been supported by different individuals or groups for different reasons. Many CDA members had nothing more than vague ideas as to the intended and probable effect of many stipulations. In short, it is not an easy task to distill out of the entire process definite collective intentions or expectations. Statements made after the end of the CDA might in addition suffer from being ex-post facto rationalizations or justifications.
To turn to a concrete example, Hicken says that the CDA wanted "to reduce the number of political parties. The reform intended to accomplish this feat was replacing Thailand's multi-seat constituencies with 400 single seat constituencies." (23) Since this is stated unequivocally, it should easily be possible to identify this connection in some of the documents produced during the process of political reform. (24) Indeed, this link is stated in a report prepared by Suraphon Nitikraiphot in the context of the Democracy Development Committee (DDC). Beginning on page 42 he mentions that the electoral system should be changed in order to reduce the number of political parties in Parliament, and to increase the number of MPs political parties will have. Unfortunately, he does not give any more detail but rather says that this issue will be dealt with in another report, without specifying in which one. (25)
We might expect to find something more in two reports, one on the improvement of the electoral system, and the other on the improvement of the political and party system. I will not deal with the latter, except to note that it says nothing about reducing the number of political parties, either from the perspective of SMCs or through the introduction of party-list votes. (26)
The first report, however, is worth discussing in more detail. The emphasis of the first report is on combating vote buying and enabling good people to stand in parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, it contains a section on the introduction of SMCs. It argues that the introduction of SMCs would make constituencies smaller, and thus result in easier campaigning of the candidates. They could cover the entire area, and they would have fewer expenses. In addition, MPs would have closer relationships with their voters, enabling the latter to better judge the candidates. After their election, MPs of SMCs could take better care of their constituents. The SMC would also lead to equality of the voters by introducing the one man, one vote system. This was different from the MMC system previously used in Thailand, in which voters had different numbers of votes, dependent on how many MPs their constituency would send to Parliament.
However, SMC also was seen as having two main disadvantages. First, it would enable "influential people" to get easier access to the position of MP. (27) Second, SMC hinders the development of the political party system, because voters would cast their ballots based on a judgment about the individual candidates running in their constituencies.
The SMC system therefore supports the election of personalities, and not decisions based on the ideologies of the political parties the candidates stand for. In brief, voters elect individuals, not political parties. (28)
The final report issued by the DDC reflected what has been said previously. SMCs are said to be in accordance with world standards. The system is said to be fair to all voters in the country, because every voter equally has only one vote. MPs can take care of the entire constituency since it is neither too big nor too small. And capable people can stand more easily in elections. Criticism that SMCs facilitate more vote buying and a greater role of influential people is rejected with the argument that these problems were not specific to SMCs but already existed in the present MMC system. (29) Furthermore, constituency MPs had close relations with their areas and thus could help solve the problems within their constituencies. (30) Again, the solution of the dual problem of the instability of coalition governments and the inefficiency of governing is seen in strengthening the position of the prime minister so that he can be a true leader (as mentioned at the beginning of this article). (31) I could not detect any statement in any of these reports that draws a link between the introduction of SMCs and the reduction of political parties in the House.
In the "Basic Framework" mentioned earlier, there is no word on reducing the number of political parties either. However, the lack of equality in voting is identified as a problem of Thai political institutions. The intended introduction of a mixed system--SMC and party list--is listed without further elaboration. (32) In sum, the introduction of SMCs might well have been unrelated to the issue of reducing the number of political parties. In the CDA's main document outlining the positive results people could expect from the constitution, SMCs are said to have three advantages. (33) First, this system would confuse voters less. Second, candidates would know their constituencies better, that is, not merely concentrate on the areas where they are strong. (34) Third, more capable candidates would gain access to MP positions. Borwornsak Uwanno, one of the main drafters of the charter, stated, "The single member constituency is seen as fairer than the old multi-member method and constituencies will be smaller in size bringing MPs closer to their constituents." (35)
Regarding the introduction of party-list votes, it is of course correct to say that it worked out as "an electoral bonus" for political parties that could pass the 5-percent barrier. However, it is not clear to me whether Hicken considers this an expected effect. The bonus's effect on the number of political parties might well have been anticipated. The CDA's main document outlining the positive results people could expect from the constitution pointed out that the party-list system (among other "advantages"), "boosts party politics. Votes for party list candidates are not for the candidates so much as they are for the parties themselves. Parties receiving less than 5 per cent of the party list vote will be cancelled. The objective of this is to discourage the presence of small parties in Parliament because this contributes to the instability of governments" (quoted according to the translation in The Nation, August 23, 1997). (36)
To arrive at a more correct picture, it would be necessary to identify the source of this reasoning and how it relates to the decision-making process within the CDA. In a seminar organized by the CDA's academic subcommittee, the party list was seen as solving two problems. First, it would produce MPs that are oriented toward the problems of the nation--unlike the constituency MPs, who only had their local area at heart. Second, it would better reflect the values of votes. Examples mentioned in this context were the Democrat Party, which had received almost all of the seats in Bangkok though it got only 47 percent of the total votes, and the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom and Free Democrats in Germany. The Liberal Democrats had great problems being represented according to their strength in Parliament, because of the first-past-the-post system. The Free Democrats, in contrast, had always been represented in the Bundestag, solely based on Germany's proportional election system. (37)
Refuting the "Counterfactual"
Hicken asks the question, "What about the counterfactual?" in order to refute any anticipated counterarguments. He does so in three ways. First, he implies that Thaksin should have succeeded with the Palang Dharma Party (PDP), whose chairmanship was given to him by its charismatic former head, Chamlong Srimuang. That he did not succeed is taken as disproving the assertion that Thaksin's success with TRT significantly was based on the money he spent in building and maintaining it. Second, Hicken asserts that there had been leaders similar in stature and wealth to Thaksin who nevertheless failed. If this had been the case, we would have no need to pay attention to Thaksin as a person. We would have to look for other factors that catapulted him to political stardom, while his predecessors and colleagues had to be satisfied with much lesser roles. Third, Hicken hypothesizes that important sections of TRT in fact wanted to leave the party before the 2005 elections but were kept in its "prison" because of the ninety-day rule. This would mean that TRT's election success in 2005, and its pre-coup juggernaut shape, largely depended on the existence of constitutional rules, not the MPs' motivations as connected to Thaksin's popularity. In sum, if all these "counterfactuals" were plausible, they would lend some credibility to the assumption that Thaksin was unimportant, and institutional incentives would look considerably more significant. I will consider each of these three arguments in turn.
First, Hicken states that when Thaksin took over the Palang Dharma Party from Chamlong Srimuang, he was rich already, and still he could not make the party work. One needs to realize that Thaksin's wealth alone is not the issue concerning party building. When Chamlong brought Thaksin in from the outside to replace him, the party was deeply divided between the worldly and the ideological temple factions. The latter were very much ascetic Buddhists, and Thaksin's money was immoral to them. (38) Thaksin trying to buy such people with his largesse surely was out of the question. I therefore doubt that one could put all the blame on Thaksin for having failed to keep the PDP from disintegrating; it was on its way down anyway. Understandably, Thaksin himself put the blame on PDP, saying that the party was unable to "adjust its thinking to keep up with the modern world." (39) I assume that Thaksin did learn from this experience that given Thai sociopolitical structure (not any legal incentives), he was better creating his own party and determining the rules of engagement than to be dependent on any borrowed loyalties. Similar calculations probably accompanied his flirtation with taking over the New Aspiration Party. (40)
Second, Hicken claims that other politicians had tried the same strategy as Thaksin and failed, "regardless of the assets and capabilities of the party's leadership." I strongly doubt both points. There simply has not been any political leader comparable to Thaksin in the past decades of Thai political history, be it in terms of sheer energy, determination, vision, professionalism, ruthlessness, and network-building capacity. As for the money, it has been estimated that Thaksin had spent, between 2000 and 2005, around 1 billion baht a year on sustaining TRT. Thaksin's predecessors--Chartchai Choonhavan, Suchinda Kraprayoon (via the Samakkhi Tham Party), Banharn Silapa-archa, and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh--had sufficient funds for buying certain provinces or regions. Thaksin is the first one who had amounts of money at his personal disposal--the others were dependent on recruiting a number of financiers--that would allow him to aim for the entire country. Similarly, I cannot imagine any other elected Thai politician who could have managed to draw so much hatred and finally even induce a very personally aimed military coup against himself and then have the king officially appoint the coup leader by royal order, saying, among other things, "Gen. Sonthi [the coup leader] informed HM the King that Thaksin Shinawatra as the prime minister [has caused] severe division within the nation and destroyed national unity. This is something that has never happened in the country's history." (41)
Third, Hicken boldly states, "Finally, it is clear that there are factions within TRT that, given the chance, would have jumped ship before the 2005 elections." This is not at all clear. To begin with, I do not think that it is accurate to say that the ninety-day rule forces MPs to stay in the government party against their will. (42) If the House of Representatives is expected to end its term, MPs who want to switch parties could do so by resigning from the House a few months in advance. They would not lose much more than a few months of their salaries; there does not even have to be a by-election if the remaining time is less than 180 days. Hicken probably assumes that if the number of resigning MPs is higher than the prime minister can accept, he would dissolve the House in order to take revenge by blocking those MPs from being able to stand in the election. How realistic is this scenario? Dissatisfied MPs certainly had the opportunity to leave TRT before the 2005 election, but they did not take it. Thus, Hicken's claim that the prime minister "can credibly threaten to call new elections if party factions try to bolt, thus forcing the members of the faction to sit out one election" needs some reconsideration.
More specifically, what factions, except that of Sanoh Thienthong, wanted to leave TRT? Furthermore, it is incorrect to equate Sanoh's own personal dissatisfaction and motives with that of the members of his faction. It already had become smaller and smaller, because members had defected to other factions. A core question being asked in the Thai political discourse before the election of 2005 was for how long Thaksin might stay in power. Estimations ranged from eight to sixteen years--such was his political leadership-stature and the weakness of the opposition and all potential new political parties at that time. Since the raison d'etre of an ordinary Thai MP is to belong to the government party, it would not seem to have made much sense under these conditions that relatively small sections of TRT--that is, sections that would not be able to unseat the government, even if they joined the Democrats or Chart Thai in an alliance--would be left for a very long spell in the political wilderness. Staying with the party was an act of rational adaptation to the political situation, given the MPs' utility functions, their options, and their attempt to maximize their benefits. No ninety-day rule needs to be entered into this calculation. In other words, MPs and factions were not institutionally forced to stay with TRT, as Hicken suggests. On the contrary, they wanted to stay, because this was in their very best interest, by far the best political deal they could ever hope for at that time.
Hicken writes, "Under earlier rules there is little doubt Sanoh would have left TRT and joined another party, as he had in the past." It was not the rules that were different, it was the political situation. When Sanoh on earlier occasions moved from one party to another, he could be quite sure that he would be part of the future coalition government. This was the case when he took his faction to Banharn's Chart Thai Party, to Chavalit's New Aspiration Party, and finally to Thaksin's TRT. But such a scenario was not even a remote possibility before the election of 2005. Leaving TRT would effectively have meant his political retirement. In the end, nevertheless, he did move out with his family, probably based on an "honor"-related decision, while his faction members stayed on with TRT. It is worth mentioning in this context that before the 2005 election, two important factions of Banharn's Chart Thai Party--the Chonburi faction of Kamnan Poh, and the Buriram faction of the Chidchob clan--had left for TRT. Obviously, they were not at all afraid of going to that ninety-day-based "prison." (43) What they hoped for were executive positions in the government for the next four, and possibly many more, years--and everything that comes with such positions in terms of financial and political capital, both at the national level and concerning the status of their own informal local political groups in their home provinces.
As with the structures and actions in other functional areas of social life, what happens in politics usually is caused by a complex set of factors. Common sense tells us that legal regulations certainly are among them. In this respect, I fully agree with Allen Hicken. Admittedly, his claims as to the explanatory reach of his text are fairly modest. He merely wants to point to factors that "have often been overlooked and undervalued." Moreover, a good number of qualifications is spread throughout his article. My response therefore is not so much about the validity of Hicken's basic assumptions. Rather, I have some doubts concerning the way he deals with some of his target areas. For example, given the long-established informal political structures in provincial Thailand, the more recent change from MMCs to SMCs might seem rather unimportant. One can even relate the existence of such structures to legal incentives that were introduced at a much earlier point in Thai political history. And if one insists on the possible effects of SMCs, they might well be cancelled out by other incentives introduced with the same constitution, such as decentralization and smaller constituencies. In short, my aim in writing these comments has been to shed some light on the other factors, or to offer alternative calculations, so as to arrive at a more balanced perspective on the role of institutional incentives. Hopefully, the pieces by Hicken and Chambers, and my modest comments, can contribute to the ongoing efforts of describing Thai politics.
(1.) Khosanoe nai kanpattirup kanmueng thai [Recommendations for the Reform of Thai Politics] (Krungthep: Khanakammakan Patthana Prachathipattai, 1995), p. 77.
(2.) Krob bueangton rang ratthathammanun chabap prachachon (Krungthep: Khanakammithikan Prachasamphan Sapha Rang Ratthathammanun, 1997), p. 47.
(3.) Standard references that focus on Thaksin as political leader are Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2004); and Duncan McCargo and Ukrist Pathamanand, The Thaksinization of Thailand (Copenhagen: NIAS, 2005). It is probably not due to any self-delusion on the side of these authors that they chose to focus on Thaksin instead of on Thai Rak Thai or on constitutional changes that were supposedly "necessary" for the creation of Thaksin. See also Thitinan Pongsudhirak, "Thailand: Democratic Authoritarianism," in Southeast Asian Affairs 2003 (Singapore: ISEAS, 2003), pp. 277-290; and Bidhya Bowornwathana, "Thaksin's Model of Government Reform: Prime Ministerialisation Through 'A Country Is My Company' Approach," Asian Journal of Political Science 12, no. 1 (2004): 135-153.
(4.) A more systematic initial statement can be found in Michael H. Nelson, "Analyzing Provincial Political Structures in Thailand: Phuak, Trakun, and Hua Khanaen," SEARC Working Paper No. 79, 2005.
(5.) Obviously, one could reformulate these two sentences to emphasize the role of the leader and thereby reduce the phuak-related group character. However, one cannot go as far as reducing these groupings to a collection of separate dyadic patron-client relationships. Phuak do have collective identities. In any case, without a strong leader, no phuak would exist. It is he who has built it over many years and elections, at the constituency level using his territorial location (the wider vicinity of his residence) for the creation of personal loyalties and the sharing of benefits. With the leader's departure, phuak mostly disintegrate and reorganize into one or more phuak under different leaders.
(6.) Hicken mixes up decentralization (the transfer of power, personnel, and money from state agencies to autonomous local government units) with the CEO-governor issue. These are separate subjects, since the governors belong to the central state administration. As such, they are part of deconcentration. They are designed to introduce some degree of horizontal integration to the state's highly fragmented field agencies at the provincial level. Formally, governors are not "appointed and removed by Thaksin," but by the minister of the interior. Informally, even Thaksin's wife participates in such appointments. In short, the CEO governors are about centralization, not decentralization. For some initial information see Michael H. Nelson, "Thailand: Problems with Decentralization.?" in Michael H. Nelson, ed., Thailand's New Politics: KPI Yearbook 2001 (Nonthaburi: King Prajadhipok's Institute and White Lotus Press, 2002), pp. 219-281.
(7.) Election campaigns to Tambon administrative organizations and municipalities mostly do not refer to any political parties. Instead, candidates use locally relevant labels, such as "Group for the Unity of Mukdahan." These labels, then, might in fact not belong to the candidates in any specific locality but rather be the label of an influential local political group that includes the MP of that area.
(8.) For a description of the earlier situation, see Michael H. Nelson, Central Authority and Local Democratization in Thailand: A Case Study from Chachoengsao Province (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1998).
(9.) Pho liang is the northern Thai version of the chao pho, so to speak, but not necessarily with the criminal or "mafia" connotation (although, e.g., Narong Wongwan would have fit this perspective).
(10.) "Clandestine" because candidates in Senate elections are neither allowed to belong to any political party nor to carry out any election campaign.
(11.) The Democrat Party is an exception in some respects, since it has been in existence for 60 years and boasts around 170 local party branches. It is an unanswered empirical question whether these branches have had any meaningful political visibility and structural effect in their localities. An indicator might be that the Democrats gained a mere 18 MPs in Bangkok, central Thailand, the north, and the northeast. Even the supposed strength of the party in the south of Thailand, where the party gained 52 MPs, needs to be looked at with a critical perspective. See Marc Askew, "Culture and Electoral Politics in Southern Thailand: A Study of Party Identity, Group Formation, and the Symbolic Construction of Political Allegiances in Songkhla Province," research report submitted to King Prajadhipok's Institute, Thailand, August 2005.
(12.) Among the ten items on the "Wish list for charter changes" printed in the Bangkok Post (February 25, 2006) was "Revoke the requirement for MPs to be members of a political party." This suggestion was also made when I observed the meetings of an extraordinary committee of the first-elected Senate tasked with studying the effects of the 1997 constitution. Some senators thought that forcing candidates to run as members of political parties restricted both their and the voters' freedom of choice.
(13.) Krob bueangton rang ratthathammanun chabap prachachon, p. 46f.
(14.) To understand the historical character of elections, voters, and political parties in European democracies, and thus in Thailand, it is still worth reading a book that was published some decades ago: Stein Rokkan, Citizens, Elections, Parties: Approaches to the Comparative Study of the Processes of Development (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1970).
(15.) For more details, see Nelson, Central Authority and Local Democratization in Thailand, chap. 8.
(16.) The former position was adopted by Duncan McCargo, "Thailand's Political Parties: Real, Authentic, and Actual," in Kevin Hewison, ed., Political Change in Thailand: Democracy and Participation (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 114-131. The latter was taken by James Ockey, "Change and Continuity in the Thai Political Party System," Asian Survey 43, no. 4 (2003): 663-680.
(17.) It has been criticized that Thaksin had variously pointed out that he would preferentially serve areas of the people who voted for him, while people in areas who voted for opposition parties would have to wait in line.
(18.) Michael H. Nelson, "Thailand's House Elections of 6 January 2001: Thaksin's Landslide Victory and Subsequent Narrow Escape," in Nelson, Thailand's New Politics: KPI Yearbook 2001, pp. 283-441 (293f).
(19.) The Bangkok Post (August 11, 2006) commented, "In six years in opposition, the Democrats have consistently criticized TRT's grassroots policies as ill-planned, short-sighted and little more than state-supported vote buying. It is a disappointment that the Democrats now want to play TRT's game. And it is a sad indictment of our society that Thailand's democracy appears to depend less on a reasoned debate over sound governance and sustainable policy, than on the question of which party can promise more largesse for votes."
(20.) The Nation, October 10, 2001, p. 5A. In the aftermath, B. I. Newman, ed., Handbook of Political Marketing (Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage, 1999) was sought after by many politicians. The book contains a chapter by Kotler entitled "Political Marketing: Generating Effective Candidates, Campaigns, and Causes" (pp. 3-18).
(21.) "Ban Phitsanulok" is the name of a building in the Government House compound.
(22.) Allen D. Hicken, "From Phitsanulok to Parliament: Multiple Parties in Pre-1997 Thailand," in Nelson, Thailand's New Politics: KPI Yearbook 2001, pp. 145-176. For some reason, this article is not referred to in his present piece, although both texts together serve as some sort of before/after (the constitutional reform) analyses.
(23.) Already the first part of this statement might not be accurate. The point was not the number of parties as such, but of parties in Parliament, and especially the instability of coalition governments. The solution was rather seen in strengthening the position of the prime minister. In addition, the drafters expressly aimed at making it easier to found new political parties by eliminating the requirement of fielding a certain number of candidates, and by reducing the costs of running a party (for example, see Krob bueangton rang ratthathammanun chabap prachachon, p. 45).
(24.) I have had no time yet to analyze the minutes of the CDA meetings. They comprise around 10,000 pages and are available on a CD-ROM produced by the King Prajadhipok's Institute with the financial support of the Asia Foundation. This author was involved in the preparation of the CD.
(25.) Suraphon Nitikraiphot, Rabop khuabkhum truatsop ratthaban thang kanmueng thi mosom [An Appropriate Political Accountability System for the Government] (Krungthep: Khanakammakan Patthana Prachathipattai, 1995). The DDC was aided in its work by a set of fifteen reports on main areas of the envisaged constitutional reform. These reports often heavily rely on other existing work in the Thai language, or on the experience of the authors with the foreign countries in which they did their PhDs. Suraphon's main points were about turning the prime minister into a real leader, and the continuity and stability of the government in the context of a "rationalized parliament."
(26.) Boonsri Mewongukote, Kanprapprung rabop phak kanmueng [The Improvement of the Political Party System] (Krungthep: Khanakammakan Patthana Prachathipattai, 1995).
(27.) "Influential people" is a short cliche version for the phuak system described earlier.
(28.) These two paragraphs summarize pages 43 and 45 of Paithun Bunnawat, Rabop kanlueaktang thi lot kansuesiang lae hai okat khon di samak luaektang [An Election System that Reduces Vote-buying and that Provides the Opportunity to Good People to Run in Elections] (Krungthep: Khanakammakan Patthana Prachathipattai, 1995).
(29.) Khosanoe nai kanpattirup kanmueng thai [Recommendations for the Reform of Thai Politics] (Krungthep: Khanakammakan Patthana Prachathipattai, 1995), p. 53.
(30.) Ibid., p. 63.
(31.) Ibid., pp. 74-77.
(32.) Krob bueangton rang ratthathammanun chabap prachachon," p. 41.
(33.) The Thai document is "Prachachon dai arai chak (rang) ratthathammanun haeng ratchaanachak thai chabap prachachon singhakhom 2540" (Krungthep: Sapha rang ratthathammanun). See the English translation in The Nation, August 23, 1997.
(34.) The formulation "areas where they are strong" signals a reference to phuak.
(35.) Borwornsak Uwanno and Wayne D. Burns, "The Thai Constitution of 1997: Sources and Process," University of British Columbia Law Review 32, no. 2 (1998): 227-247.
(36.) The Thai document is "Prachachon dai arai chak (rang) ratthathammanun haeng ratchaanachak thai chabap prachachon singhakhom 2540."
(37.) The document is "Raingan kanprachum choeng pattibatkan rueng panha lae rabop kanluektang nai prathet thai ..." [Report on the Workshop on Problems and the System of Elections in Thailand] (Krungthep: Kumphaphan 2540, 1997), pp. 1-45-1-47.
(38.) When Thaksin as PDP leader invited the press free of charge to a party in an exclusive Chiang Mai resort, few vegetarian dishes were served, but red wine was in abundance. A report in the Bangkok Post (February 8, 1996, p. 5) summarized the situation: "For those who had covered the party when Maj-Gen Chamlong was the party leader, it was hard to believe changes have been so drastic. Old party members have to adjust to the changes quickly or they would feel bewildered about how to respond to the new situation."
(39.) Quoted in Pasuk and Baker, Thaksin, p. 63.
(40.) Thaksin did not take up the invitation from the New Aspiration Party (NAP) to take over from Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (The Nation, June 15, 1997, p. B8). It was much better to let Sanoh Thienthong and his faction join his TRT than to follow Sanoh's wish and take over NAP--and then have to be grateful to him and deal with his internal party network. Even after Thaksin admitted Sanoh to TRT, he was somewhat difficult to control, although not a serious threat.
(41.) Printed in The Nation, September 22, 2006. The Thai-language order is reproduced as a pdf file on the coup plotters' website at www.mict.go.th/cdrc/image/pp1.pdf.
(42.) According to the constitution, MP candidates must have been members of a political party ninety days before they register their candidacy (not before the election, as Hicken also offers).
(43.) In footnote 61, Hicken attributes the setting of the date of the new election on October 15, 2006, to the need of selecting new election commissioners. This is incorrect. Rather, this date was expressly aimed at lifting the ninety-day limit in order to enable the supposedly great number of dissatisfied TRT members to leave theft "prison." As it turned out, only two insignificant party-list MPs left the party, while a few new faces joined it.
Michael H. Nelson is a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, and a senior research associate at Southeast Asian Studies, University of Passau, Germany.…
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Publication information: Article title: Institutional Incentives and Informal Local Political Groups (Phuak) in Thailand: Comments on Allen Hicken and Paul Chambers. Contributors: Nelson, Michael H. - Author. Journal title: Journal of East Asian Studies. Volume: 7. Issue: 1 Publication date: January-April 2007. Page number: 125+. © 2009 Lynne Rienner Publishers. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
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