18: Free phones for votes!
Today, 51 year old Mr Thaksin Shinawatra will be re-elected as the Thai Prime Minister and will serve a second term, a feat never before accomplished in Thai politics. The students at Jindaratana are of course completely oblivious. Everybody knows that Mr Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party will be re-elected before the majority of votes have even been cast. As a completely objective foreign observer the Thai election process has been terrifically interesting. The bottom line it seems here is that the person with the most influence, the most power and (to use an American term) the most clout is the winner. What this boils down to is the person who has the most money.
I am not naïve enough to think that corruption doesnt exist in English politics (cash for questions scandal etc); it just isnt on the same scale. Here it affects almost everyone who votes. In the past few weeks I have read stories of candidates who have been assassinated by motorcycle riding gunmen, I have read about candidates wrongly jailed days before the election for crimes they didnt commit, and I have read one story where the ex-pat journalist estimates the amount of money exchanging hands as pre-election gifts at around 20 million Baht.
I admit my information sources may have their own political agenda to pursue (I read Thailands two main English language newspapers The Nation and The Bangkok Post) but the picture they paint is one of corruption, bribery and dishonesty. In the north of Thailand, one party is apparently handing out free mobile phones in return for a promised vote. Presumably they get a free phone logo bearing the parties insignia and maybe a free ring tone of the parties jingle! In Kanchanaburi a pick-up truck containing 1.6 million baht in cash was stopped by police, apparently votes there are going for 500 baht each. In the East there are stories of shopkeepers allowing customers to fill one basket full with food items for the price of a vote. A Bangkok University Poll surveyed 2,420 people and concluded that people in 24 out of 37 constituencies were offered money for votes.
For these people who live in the capital, vote selling seems more of a crime. For those in the North however, these are people who live a long way from Thailands political and economical engine-room of Bangkok. They couldnt really care less for big players and fat cats licking their lips at another term in office. If somebody offers them a little money or some free food, there vote is assured without thinking twice. In a recent speech Mr Thaksin claimed that 50% of Thailands economy was underground. Half of all of Thailands money is untaxed, unaccounted for, hidden away in pillow cases, buried, or maybe under someones bed!
And there-in the problem lies. This isnt a few corrupt individuals trying to tip scales either way, this is national knowledge, it is blatant and obvious yet nothing is done to stop it. The EC have disqualified four candidates already (for varying reasons including one who had faked his degree certificate) but say their hands are tied as cunning candidates secretly tricked voters to support them so it was hard to catch them red-handed.
This type of palpable corruption questions the very fabric of democracy. Democracy is the freedom to use your vote to support the candidate of your choice, ultimately in order to improve your way of life. Democracy is not voting for who you are told because you are given some money, a few free cabbages or even a new mobile phone! And yet I cant really blame people for accepting such offers, after all they cant see how their one little vote will change there lives even in the slightest; and the thing is, theyre probably right.