The sorry tale of Anek Laotamatat’s “Tale of Two Democratic Cities”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

On 12th April 2016 the blood-stained Generalissimo Prayut admitted that he did not trust the Thai people to elect a “good” government. This was his justification for the draft military constitution which restricts the power of any democratically elected governments in the future. It is also the justification for the 2006 and 2014 military coups. It has the support of liberal, right-wing, academics in Thailand.

Liberal academics in Thailand believe that Taksin cheated in elections by “tricking or buying the ignorant rural poor”. For them the rural poor were trapped in a patron-client system. The person who mapped out this view most clearly was Anek Laotamatat in his 1995 book: “The Tale of Two Democratic Cities”.

Anek Laotamatat’s book attempted to claim that the major divide in Thai democratic society was between the rural and urban areas. These were the “two democratic cities” of Thai politics. According to Anek, the divide was not just geographical but it was an issue of class too. In his view, the rural electorate were mainly small farmers and the urban electorate were “middle-class”.

The overwhelming dominance of the rural electorate in various constituencies meant that they had the voting power to elect governments. Anek claimed that these governments were mainly corrupt and deeply involved in money politics. In Anek’s view, the rural people voted for these politicians because they were “patrons” of the poor who had to prove themselves by their work record of helping local communities. Vote buying was a ceremonial part of this “patron-client” relationship and not seen as “wrong” by the rural voters. Anek believed that rural people did not vote by using “independent thought” about political policies, but were bound by ties of obligation to their patrons.

For Anek, the urban middle-classes were well educated and chose their governments and politicians using independent thought and a strong sense of “political morality”. They cast their votes after carefully considering the policies of various parties, and when the governments which were chosen by the rural poor turned out to be corrupt and immoral, they took part in street demonstrations to bring those Governments down.

This was an inaccurate and extremely patronising view of Thai political society. The Thai middle-classes have a history of political opportunism, sometimes supporting barbaric and repressive regimes, like in 1976 and the present junta, and sometimes opposing military dictatorships, such as in 1992. Marxists have long defined the middle-classes as fickle and cowardly, bending with the wind according to strong political currents either from above or from below.

The present anti-democratic position of the middle-classes is based on strong currents from the conservative elites to ditch democracy because it gave too much power to Taksin and too much benefit to ordinary working people in urban and rural areas. Their so-called “anti-corruption” crusade has helped place the military in power. The military is one of the most corrupt institutions in Thailand. Not only this, the main political leader of the anti-corruption crusade, which opened the door to military rule, Sutep Tueksuban, is a longstanding and classical old-style politician of the Democrat Party which uses pure “patronage” and corruption to maintain votes in the south of Thailand. This is because the party has never had any real policies.

Interestingly, Anek’s solution to the problem of political patronage which he claimed resulted in corrupt politicians being elected from rural areas, was to get the state to increase rural development projects so that these areas became more urban-like and linked into the capitalist market through technological advances. Equally important was the need for political parties to develop clear policies and propose new solutions. The book was written before Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was ever established and it appears that TRT followed closely all the major points put forward in the book for developing Thai politics. Not only was TRT the only party for over two decades to take the issue of party policies seriously, the party took a keen interest in winning votes from the rural and urban poor on the basis of such policies. The 30 baht Universal Health Care Scheme was typical. The Taksin Government then proceeded to actually honour its election promises and use state funds to develop rural areas so that they could be linked to the world market. The Village Funds and “One Tambon One Product” (O.T.O.P.) are a good examples. In short, Taksin and TRT followed Anek’s prescriptions to the letter and therefore the rural voters started to vote for clear pro-poor policies, while reducing their personal attachment to local political patrons or bosses.

This is supported by the work of Australian anthropologist Andrew Walker who found that rural voters were carefully weighing up policies of various parties at election time.

Yet during the Yellow Shirt PAD campaign against Taksin before the 2006 coup, liberal academics and some social activists often quoted Anek’s book to “prove” that the rural poor were too stupid to understand democracy and that they were tied into Taksin’s new “patron-client system” via TRT’s populist policies. This was reinforced by Anek himself, who claimed, in a later book that TRT had built a new patron-client system and that this showed that Thailand could never have fully functioning democracy.

The very concept of a “patron-client system” is not about a political party which offers populist policies to the entire national electorate, carries them out and then gets overwhelmingly re-elected on a national ballot. Political patron-client systems are about individual relationships between a local political boss and the boss’s constituents. The relationship results in preferential treatment for some. It is pure nonsense to state that TRT was building a new strong patron-client system in the countryside on a national level. For those who genuinely believe in democracy, governments and political parties ought to carry out policies which the people want.

Anek Laotamatat is now promoting the idea of “Asia Values” in his attempt to justify the military regime. He argues that Thailand needs a “mixed” system where elected governments share power with the King and Thai Rak Thai Populism is replaced by “Third Way” social welfare. Anek is an ardent admirer of the British academic Anthony Giddens, favourite of Tony Blair.

The reality in Thailand is that the “two democratic cities” are made up, on one side, of the elites and middle-classes who hate democracy because it threatens their privileges, and on the other side, the urban and rural working people who cherish freedom and democracy because it is in their class interests to do so.