Vote banks and cash top-ups: Thai political loyalty up for grabs

Nakhon Ratchasima (Thailand) (AFP) –


In his final days as a "Red Shirt" rabble-rouser Suporn "Rambo Isaan" Attawong urged farmers to take up martial arts in defence of Thai democracy as a coup loomed.

Now he is contesting national elections for a party aligned to the junta which seized power weeks later -- a political volte-face in a nation where pragmatism often trumps ideology and cash coaxes voter loyalty.

"Politics is a competition," he says of his political reversal.

"We used to be part of previous government and now we are on the other side."

Turbulent Thailand is often cast as a country neatly split between political camps representing the pro-democracy movement and the army-aligned establishment.

But after two coups in 13 years -- featuring rounds of paralysing protests and the demolition of several parties by the courts -- the political landscape is more roughly hewn.

It is tacked together by influential local politicians with large vote banks and a knack for backing the winning side.

Suporn was dubbed "Rambo Isaan" by the media for his tough guy persona and heritage in Isaan -- the poor, rice farming northeast which carries the most votes in parliament.

But his fortunes were imperilled by the coup that took out the civilian government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

At the time a lawmaker for her Pheu Thai ruling party, Suporn was detained by the military.

He emerged contrite, renouncing his previous affiliations on national television.

His about-turn will be complete if he wins his district seat in Nakon Ratchasima province on March 24 for the junta-aligned Phalang Pracharat party.

Rambo says his political resurrection came after he accepted he was "part of the conflict" tearing apart the country.

His new side "will bring reconciliation", he added.

Early voting begins on Sunday, with more than 2.5 million reportedly set to cast their ballots.

- Playing politics -

Phalang Pracharat has poached more than 40 other veteran MPs from Pheu Thai in the hope of lassoing in northeastern voters who mostly back Shinawatra-aligned parties.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha is the party's candidate for prime minister after the election, which experts say will at best return a straitjacketed democracy with the military still prominent.

Thai power is sharply hierarchical, with patronage networks fanning out from Bangkok, through provincial government and down to village headmen.

The Shinawatra political clan perfected the art of pulling in provincial votes.

Universal healthcare, farm subsidies and village funds boosted incomes and aspirations in long-neglected rural areas of the country, bolstering the popularity of local politicians.

Many of the MPs to recently jump ship from Pheu Thai grew powerful under the Shinawatras but flipped as the political tea leaves augured a long stay in power for the generals and their allies.

The defectors are "vote magnets in their constituencies, because they are the local providers", according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University.

This entrenched system of patronage disadvantages newcomers who choose to "play politics" -- as Thais describe the dash for office.

The task of convincing grassroots voters to swap sides falls to trusted canvassers who often sit under politicians' wings.

The Election Commission punishes vote-buying and cash inducements during campaign season with up to 10 years in prison, but the system is deeply embedded in local politics.

"Canvassers are like salesmen approaching clients," an experienced practitioner of the dark political arts in the northeast told AFP.

"No matter how loyal voters are, money can change it," he added.

The "vast majority" of the country is already under the control of these canvassers, analyst Thitinan added, citing Bangkok as the exception.

"The more up-country and the poorer the area is, the more it is exposed to vote-buying," he said.

Historically payments can reach up to 1,000 baht ($31) for a pledged vote, a large sum in areas where the monthly wage can dip well below $100.

- 'Dogs howl' -

Thais have not voted in a general election since 2011.

Some fear beefed up laws will threaten the time-honoured election ritual of paying voters top-up sums (up to 500 baht) the night before polls open.

Dubbed "the night the dogs howl" -- canvassers normally go door-to-door across remote villages trying to outbid rivals.

This year they expect greater monitoring and possible election bans.

So "the payments will be made a few days before", one told AFP.

Voters are also wise to the changing game.

"Where candidates are neck-and-neck, parties will employ every tactic," said Laddawan Tantivitayapitak of poll monitoring group Open Forum for Democracy Foundation.

"But the people know their politicians, they have learned their lesson."

One voter in Nakhon Ratchasima told AFP he "earned" around 2,000 baht ($62) from several different parties right before the 2011 election.

But his political loyalty cannot be rented, the 33-year-old insisted, requesting anonymity.

"We will take the money but will vote for whoever improves our the economic situation of our area," he said.