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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


In the provinces, patronage politics still rules

By Sangwon Suh and Julian Gearing / Suphan Buri

The Quiet Revolution Thai politics are changing dramatically

An Interview with Chuan Leekpai

BANHARN SILAPA-ARCHA SCUFFS THE GROUND with his shoe and frowns. "Not enough cement has been used here," he tells the accompanying officials as he points to a ragged portion of the road. "This is why I have to come personally and check all the details. I suggest you get this repaired."

Attention to detail is Banharn's forte. Ordering the changing of a lightbulb or chastising contractors over the quality of the varnished floor in a sparkling new basketball stadium is all in a weekend's work for the former premier. A self-confessed workaholic, 65-year-old Banharn is a key mover and shaker in his home province of Suphan Buri in central Thailand. His supporters claim no one has done more for the development of the area than Banharn. His many achievements - which include schools, six-lane highways and even an annual trash-clearing campaign - helped him get the Chart Thai Party's leadership and eventually the premiership in 1995 for a year-long, though troubled, tenure.

To his critics, Banharn is the epitome of old-style politics, a rural powerbroker who thrives in the smoky world of palm grease and backroom deals. They say his hold on what is essentially his personal fiefdom represents patronage politics at its worst, with all the pork, vote-buying and influence-peddling that it entails. And Banharn is not alone; he seems to be simply a small part of a vast network of local MPs across the country who have established a cozy relationship with their constituencies. It is a reinvigorated version of the old system that has held local communities together for centuries. The phu yai - people with power and money - give material aid to those less well-off. In return, those in the lower rungs offer their help and support when they are needed.

Banharn reckons there is nothing wrong with the arrangement. "I think it is the same practice everywhere in the world," he says. "The MPs have to do something good for their constituencies or they will not be elected. Look at the United States. President Bill Clinton has done a lot for his home state of Arkansas." He then points to Japan and South Korea: "What I have heard is they also spend a lot of money and give out gifts to people in their constituency. Would this be considered vote-buying?"

Banharn denies he has ever bought votes. But it remains an open secret that all parties - even the reputedly clean Democrats - have engaged in the practice. "At the last election, [soon-to-be-premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's] New Aspiration Party sent out people to give money to the people," says Surin resident Veeraporn Pakdi (not his real name). "The first time we received 200 baht, then about a week later 150 baht, and then just before the poll, 50 baht. Obviously you are under pressure to vote for their candidate. This is the sort of thing other parties do as well." Many observers believe money tipped the result in Chavalit's favor in 1996, when his party pipped the Democrats by just two seats. In all, some 20 billion baht ($790 million at the 1996 exchange rate) is estimated to have been spent by politicians in that election.

An obvious result of such rampant spending is that power often goes to the most generous candidate rather than the most qualified one. Another consequence is more corruption. Upon coming to office, the victor seeks to recoup his campaign expenditures by raking off money from government projects. Meanwhile, his home region is rewarded with public works, his supporters with plum positions and lucrative contracts.

And if money does not go far enough, it can always be backed up by a little muscle. The role of guns and goons is far less obvious in Thailand than in some more violence-prone countries. Still, all political parties at one time or another have looked for support from the underworld's jao pho (godfathers), whose influence is especially pronounced in the major vote banks of the northeast. Says Chamnong Wairottana, a former village leader: "[In the northeast], they have influential people. If villagers do not follow what they say, they will get angry." And then? "They have the power to make people disappear."

The new Constitution promises to change this old face of Thai politics. But few expect the system of patronage politics to change dramatically anytime soon. Kraisak Choonhavan, son of the late ex-premier Chatichai Choonhavan and an adviser to Bangkok governor Bhichit Rattakul, thinks the next election will see even more money being splurged, notwithstanding the economic downturn. "You will be surprised [at how much money the politicians have]," he says. "They will spend it, and the prediction is that they will spend even more than in the last election."

At least p.r.-wise, the old players are learning to adjust themselves to the new ball game. Banharn, for one, understands the need to improve the image of his Chart Thai Party, and an ongoing party revamp indicates that the systems are being changed and potential candidates more closely vetted. Banharn also talks of a policy platform, something Thailand's relationship-driven parties are not known for. "I wish to focus on the development of the rural areas and the upgrading of living conditions for people upcountry." That would be a good start. Of course, his supporters would say he has accomplished all that already.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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