Vote-buying claims nothing but dangerous nonsense

The claim that the current government has no legitimacy because its success at the polls was due to vote-buying has been shouted from the protest stages time and again. It has also been repeated in recent opinion pieces on these pages and is a regular claim of contributors to this paper's letters page.

And it's nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.

In the early history of Thai elections, candidates thrust red notes into voters' hands in order to create an obligation. Once a voter had accepted the candidate's generosity, it would be bad manners not to repay that generosity when casting the vote. But this kind of naive transaction did not last long. People soon learned they could take money from every candidate, and still vote however they liked.

Still, until the late 1990s, the public took little interest in elections. They voted for an MP once every three or four years, choosing among a menu of rich businessmen who did nothing much for them. They saw little value in the vote, and so often sold it for cash or bargained it for some local facility, such as piped water or a paved road. Electoral politics was not something that made the heart pound or the pulse race. At every general election, the Interior Ministry had to run campaigns to persuade people to use their vote.

That situation changed spectacularly around the turn of the millennium. With innovations in the 1997 constitution, especially the advent of decentralisation for elective local government, people began to vote much more, and not just for an MP once every few years. They voted in several elections a year _ for senators, village heads, provincial councillors, district assembly members, and local mayors. In these new local elections, people often voted for candidates they knew; and they could see the results of their choices. This education in the value and power of the vote was rapid and overwhelming. Thaksin showed people that the vote could matter at a national level too.

The Interior Ministry no longer has to run campaigns persuading people to vote. Turnout at the last few polls has been over 70%, much higher than in "advanced democracies". During the 2010 red-shirt protest, one woman told researchers why protesters were demanding a new election: "Bangkok people already have a good life, they don't need elections for change, but we do."

Vote-buying has not disappeared. At election time, some candidates still hand out money for fear of being judged "small-hearted" or "ungenerous" if they don't. But the point is, this money is no longer determining the election result.

At the last general election in July 2011, the pattern of voting was very distinctive. Across large areas of the country, adjacent constituencies gave candidates of the same party victories by very large margins. Across much of the Northeast, Pheu Thai candidates won over 60% of the vote, and Democrats less than 10%. Across the upper North, the Pheu Thai candidates won over 50% and the Democrat around 20%.

Across the South (except for the Muslim-majority far South), Democrat candidates won more than 60% of the vote and the Pheu Thai under 10%.

This pattern is not what you would expect if vote-buying was determining the result. For a start, why would the parties buy far more votes than they needed? When vote-buying did matter 30 years ago, the pattern was very different. What we see from the 2011 pattern is the results of voting on the basis of mass-shared sentiment.

Recent false claims about vote-buying are a key part of the campaign to undermine electoral democracy. The real problem is that more people understand the value of the vote, and are using it in their own interest.


Pasuk Phongpaichit is professor emeritus at the Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University. Chris Baker is a historian and Bangkok-based scholar who co-writes books on Thai politics and economics with Prof Pasuk.

About the author

Writer: Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker