Giles Ji Ungpakorn
For decades Thai electoral politics was influenced at local level by political “bosses” and their patronage system. Patronage can result in real benefits to people in local areas who support the bosses. Those who follow Thai politics will know the names of many local political bosses such as Banharn, Sanoh, Chalerm and Sutep. Some are associated with Thai Rak Thai / Pua Thai and some with the Democrat Party.
However, the important thing about patronage politics is that it is a local phenomenon and mainly associated with a lack of political policies or ideology. This means that the role of those local political bosses in Thai Rak Thai and Pua Thai was greatly over-shadowed by Taksin’s national policies. The same cannot be said of the Democrat Party patronage system in Sutep’s Surat-tani province.
Sutep Tuaksuban has two other brothers who were Democrat Party members of parliament for Surat-tani in this out-going parliament. His family have been local bosses for generations and apart from their numerous and lucrative local business interests, they also try to control local councils.
Apart from the Democrats support among sections of the middle class in Bangkok, their only other area of significant support is in the south. The main explanation lies with the local patronage system controlled by the Democrats. Historically the communists helped build support for the Democrats in the south and more recently Taksin lost many votes in this area after massacring Muslim Malays at Takbai, Naratiwat in 2004.
The significance of this is that the Democrat Party cannot hope to win on a national level until they propose serious policies which would benefit the majority of the electorate. But they have consistently opposed the universal health care system, the job creation policies, the rice support scheme and any infrastructural development projects. They reject state spending on the population and instead favour local patronage. They are clearly a party of the “old politics”. Even Abhisit Vejjajiva, with his posh English public school accent, and attempts to have a “modern image” cannot get away from the fact that he has long been in the same political bed as the military and the arch conservatives. The Democrats are a hybrid party combining some middle class urban support with southern regional “bossism”.