Banharn Silpa-archa: The King of Thai Money Politics Dies at Age 83


Partyforumseasia: The province of Suphan Buri hast lost its patron and benefactor for decades. The 21st Prime Minister of Thailand, Banharn Silpa-archa, has so Ban 2successfully channeled subsidies and development projects to his home turf and power base that the province was also known as Banharn Buri
Banharn, who was also long term leader of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, died on April 23 at a hospital in Bangkok. After a royal sponsored funeral ceremony, attended by all top political leaders of the country, his urn was transferred to Suphan Buri.

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The funeral convoy in Suphan Buri

The origins of his political career sound a bit like a fairy tale. The son of a Chinese shopkeeper in Suphan, he came to Bangkok as a teenager and helped his elder brothers in their coffee shop. Bringing coffee to the nearby Public Works Department, he met officials from his home province. When he later started a construction company they granted him a 10 year monopoly for tap water installation all over the country which made him rich. And he spent much of his money in his home province, building schools and hospitals and bringing in the royal family for their openings. The role of benevolent and generous businessmen in Thai politics has been enormous. And Banharn may be one of the most interesting examples of their ascendance to huge political influence and control of their home turf. The local denomination for these men is „chao pho“ or „nak leng“, oscillating between patron and godfather. But this influence was also promoting massive vote buying. Banharn brought money by truckloads to the rural areas which owned him the dubious nickname of “Mr. ATM” or Mr Automatic Teller Machine… Consequently, his serial re-elections were landslide victories between 60 and 90 %!!
The endemic proliferation of vote buying with vote-traders ( „hua khanaen“ ) offering their services, including a guaranteed win, to the highest bidder, irrespective of which party, was detrimental to Thailand’s once famed democratization. It is noteworthy that during the democratization process since 1973 many of the patron-godfathers moved up into party politics, the parliament and the cabinets, which allowed even bigger financial benefits and direct influence on the distribution of development projects. Banharn’s Suphan Buri province has thus been blessed with the best roads, schools, hospitals, and general infrastructure in Thailand.

Could the death of Banharn Silpa-archa be “the end of an era” like some commentators suggested, or even symbolize an end to money politics in Thailand? Unfortunately, that sounds too nice to be true. What Banharn has started in big style has been perfected by Thaksin Shinawatra, money politics extended to the whole country.

One persistently festering problem of the country is “A Culture of Impunity”, highlighted recently (27th May) by the Bangkok Post (Link):
“…a long-standing problem in our society – the inability to enforce the rule of law. (…) Money, power and connections can influence the enforcement of the law in other countries too. But in Thailand, we have examples that are more glaring and blatant. (…) While we despise and condemn the fact that the rich and wealthy can get away with murder, we must also accept that the general public here do not respect the rule of law.”

The military regime declares that it stands for law and order and against the dirty politics of the political parties. Cleaning up money politics, however, is a daunting task nearly everywhere, but especially in Southeast Asia.

 

Thailand: Which Election System Under A New Constitution?


Partyforumseasia: Thailand is holding some dubious world records, namely the number of military coups and the number of constitutions. Since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, the average life span of a constitution was about four years. The military government under general-prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha gave up on the Prayuthlast draft after nine months of gestation under rejection pressure from practically all political parties. The most controversial among the 285 articles was the creation of a so called National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee (NSRRC) with the commanders of all the military services and the police and sweeping powers to interfere even after successful elections and the establishment of civilian government. Abandoning the draft constitution extends the military rule through mid 2017.
Meanwhile, the discussions within the new drafting committee (CDC) may give some clues about what the generals want to avoid. Last week a panel of the CDC was discussing the future electoral system and the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) system which was part of the rejected draft constitution. The proponents and supporters had studied the German system which works well for decades now. It gives two votes to the voters, one for a candidate and one for a party of his preference. One argument against its adoption  was that it would necessitate an electronic system not available so fast  in Thailand, which it does not have in Germany either, though. The system was seen as a safeguard against one-party rule and favoring coalition governments and smaller parties. For the generals, meanwhile, coalition governments with possibly a multitude of small parties may seem too weak to reconcile the country and push for consolidating necessary reforms.
A viable reform of Thailand’s democratic institutions hits the ceiling of decades of wrong developments. This was openly addressed by Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, former chairman of the political reform committee under the now-defunct National Reform Council, by saying that the major challenge to the Thai system was that most of the MPs came to power through election fraud. Century-old patterns of leadership in the social structures have undermined the establishment of really free and fair elections and advanced the continuous proliferation of vote buying and violent intimidation of voters. THB donationsThe collusion between dubious local business elites („chao pho“) who enjoy profitable concessions and monopolies which often cover partially unlawful activities on one side and politicians, bureaucrats, police and military on the other side as well as more and more „chao pho“ in parliament themselves. The system has been “perfected” over the last few decades by a variety of vote canvassers („hua khanaen“) on local, provincial and regional level who sort of guarantee a mandate to the candidate who offers the best price. To be fair, it must be mentioned that Thailand is not the only country in the region with this problem, among others Indonesia can compete on that level.
The ongoing political uncertainty is aggravated by another major uncertainty, the pending royal succession. But it is not excluded that the military may have a better chance to control the transformation than any unstable coalition government.

For a detailed overview on Thailand’s party politics see: Dusadeeisariyakul, Pimrapaat, Stability and Performance of Political Parties in Thailand
in: Sachsenröder, Wolfgang (ed.), Party Politics in Southeast Asia, Singapore 2014
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