The truth about Thai money politics

The truth about Thai money politics


Security personnel guard the Democracy Monument. (Photo: Patipat Janthong)
Security personnel guard the Democracy Monument. (Photo: Patipat Janthong)

As the election looms in Thailand, money politics returns with a vengeance.

This game in the electoral arena is a well-known part of the established narrative of Thai politics. At the start of every election cycle, MPs would invariably buy their way into office by purchasing votes from upcountry villagers, before recouping their "investment" through corruption once they make it to the position of minister or manager of lucrative cabinet portfolios.

While correct, this narrative only tells half of the story. The fact of the matter is, money politics isn't exclusive to members of parliament -- it has infected all of Thailand's political arena.

Money politics in Thailand is self-evident. MPs hop from one party to another, as if they are in some sort of a marketplace where the highest bidder doesn't only offer financial rewards but also the best prospects of helping them maintain their grip on the seat once the polls are over.

Political parties, meanwhile, try to boost their MP numbers to maximise their leverage in an effort to secure a major role in the post-poll coalition government, with an eye on ministries which come with big budget allocations and chances for collusion and kickbacks.

The story has always been the same each time Thailand holds an election. MPs buy votes, get into office, take control of certain cabinet ministries, come up with development and procurement projects, and line their pockets through rigged projects with inflated prices and shoddy results at the expense of taxpayers. These practices have led to a loss of public trust in the government and the credibility of elected politicians, inviting coups and constitutional changes.

Unfortunately, the often-told and well-substantiated stories of unscrupulous politicians buying votes from supposedly uneducated upcountry voters affirm the belief among some quarters that good leaders are in fact appointed, not elected.

Appointing "good" people to lead the country has thus become imperative to keep "bad" politicians at bay. Accordingly, out of the 13 successful coups and 20 coup attempts Thailand has witnessed since 1932, most were aimed at getting rid of corrupt politicians.

The "good" leaders imperative, especially in the 1980s-2010s, was closely associated with the late King Bhumibol's seven-decade reign, which was seen and portrayed as virtuous and ideal.

The ideal government in Thailand is therefore run by unelected appointees under the military and a technocracy, which prevailed from the 1950s to the 1990s, even including the 2006-07 period. This arrangement as an alternative to a government with elected representatives prevailed with notable success during the Cold War period.

Generals would be in charge of internal and external security, while expert policymakers with training stepped in economics formed a technocracy that ran the Thai macro-economy with a sense of noblesse oblige. In truth, the ruling generals of the day were not above corruption and graft but the economic pie kept growing to satisfy upward mobility and better living standards for the vast majority, thanks to technocrats who were empowered and insulated from the cut-and-thrust of politics and the greedy hands of the politicians.

The high point of this military-technocracy alliance took place in 1991-92 when a set of coup-makers appointed a caretaker government under Anand Panyarachun. This government instituted a raft of policy reforms, getting a lot done in a short time. Since then, the money politics narrative has become dominant once again. The 2006 military takeover that lasted 15 months also brought back a semblance of military-technocracy, but it did not result in a lot of policy changes.

The 2014 military coup, led by then-Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, was different. Military rule lasted five years, much longer than other junta-led governments. Benefitting from a coup-inspired constitution, Gen Prayut secured the premiership for himself after the March 2019 election. His rule both under the military government and after the 2019 poll has increasingly shown to more and more people that money politics is not limited to politicians but also the military and police forces, as well as bureaucracies and big business.

That Gen Prayut is exempted from the constitutional requirement to declare his assets speaks volumes to unchecked wealth. His brother and nephews were never properly investigated and held to account for allegations of cronyism and graft. Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, another coup-maker, in 2014 kind of slid by the corruption scandal involving luxury watches. Take a closer look and there is a litany of graft accusations and irregularities with procurement projects and budget expenditures in the military and police.

The recent case of Chaiyanat "Tuhao" Kornchayanant, a Chinese businessman and suspected crime boss, is also telling. He appears to be a central figure in a Chinese crime syndicate with illegal businesses that involve high-ranking men in uniform, having allegedly donated a considerable sum to the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, an offence which could result in its dissolution if proven, although no one expects this case to go all the way to such a conclusion.

Similarly, the director-general of the Department of National Parks and Plant Conservation has also been arrested for graft.

When men in uniform enter the electoral arena, the graft proceeds they make while in power are all part of money politics. The difference is that elected politicians can be criticised, so there is a better chance of going after them as compared to generals and bureaucrats. The corruption among these unscrupulous individuals tells us that money politics is everywhere.

Laying the blame solely on elected representatives has been the preferred way to keep democratic institutions, particularly political parties, weak and discredited.

Without a doubt, parties and their candidates still buy votes, and many voters who struggle to make a living still sell. But while vote-buying is still necessary, it is no longer sufficient to win elections. Policy ideas and performance in office have never mattered in Thai politics.

Building a political system that can answer to the public requires the strengthening of the democratic process, which in turn has to rely on elected representatives that are accountable to the people. Getting rid of money politics in the long run thus requires fighting corruption and graft in all corridors and corners of Thailand's political arena, not just among politicians but also generals and bureaucrats.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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