The parent firm of Cambridge Analytica, the company at the centre of a storm over online privacy breaches and election meddling in America and Britain, was active in Thailand before Thaksin Shinawatra swept to power in 2001, a new report says.
The news website Quartz detailed activities in Indonesia and Thailand by SCL Group based on documents that it says were issued around 2013 and recently came to light.
SCL said it came to Indonesia in 1998, shortly after the overthrow of dictator Suharto, at the behest of “pro-democratic groups” to “assist with a national campaign of political reform and democratisation".
The company's activities in Thailand, at an unspecified time before the 2001 election, involved a nine-month study of vote-buying and its impact on election outcomes. SCL said that after the study was completed, it went on to stage an "intervention" on behalf of "multiple political parties".
Observers of the local political scene are sceptical about the claim that several parties in Thailand would unite for such a purpose. It is still not clear who hired SCL Group in the first place, though Quartz said it had contacted the firm for a response.
However, the SCL documents seen by Quartz did quote former prime minister and Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai as endorsing its work.
In total, SCL claims to have worked on more than 100 election campaigns across 32 countries.
Cambridge Analytica is at the centre of a global storm over alleged misuse of personal data of millions of Facebook users during the 2016 US election campaign. It is also accused of breaking the rules during the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK.
In the Thailand operation, SCL said its mandate was to ascertain the scale of vote-buying behaviour that had inflated the cost of running an election campaign to around $1 billion, according to the company’s estimates.
“The research showed that the vote-buying practice had become so endemic that an entire industry of dealers had emerged to broker the voter groups and funders,” the documents said. “It was quite commonplace for voters to sell their votes twice — and then not vote at all.”
The company said some 1,200 people worked for nine months collating and analysing data from all constituencies in the country. The goal was to assess the underlying motivation of voters and identify how open a particular constituency was to accepting a change in vote-buying behaviour.
"In 50% of the constituencies, the research found, vote-buying did not affect the electoral result, a finding that SCL claims was worth $250 million alone," Quartz reported.
However, the company identified 91 constituencies where money did matter. “In these constituencies a more direct behavioural intervention was required which consisted of a full-spectrum approach combining social pressure, economic penalties, legal framework and enhanced monitoring,” the documents said.
Reportedly with “the cooperation of most of the major political parties", SCL said it implemented a six-month intervention. The result: Thaksin won the 2001 election after a campaign during which SCL claimed vote-buying dropped by 31%.
That apparently prompted Mr Chuan to offer a glowing review of SCL’s work. “Winning an election is about choosing your battles carefully. SCL made clear those conflicts that could be won, those that could not, and those that had to be hard fought for,” the documents quote the former premier as saying.
Duncan McCargo, a widely acknowledged Thailand expert and professor at the University of Leeds, told Quartz it was entirely plausible that a party or parties might have engaged SCL.
“There’s no doubt that some Thai political parties have commissioned international consultants to work on improving their electability, and this was certainly the case for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001,” he said.
However, there is some scepticism about the possibility of multiple parties supporting a project to stop vote-buying, as the SCL documents suggest.
“Vote-buying has been a widespread issue of concern in Thailand and was the basis of considerable public interest/moral panic in the 1980s and 1990s," said Mr McCargo. "The 1997 constitution included various provisions designed to combat and reduce vote-buying. There was broad popular support for these changes, though I can’t say that translates to ‘cross-party’ support.”