|  November 1, 2013

The election billboards are up and politics is again the talking point in newspapers, on social media and around coffee tables. So, how fares our democracy after the last decade of turmoil?

Surprisingly robust, according to Dr. Suchart Jaipakdee, Head of Chiang Mai’s Election Commission, who I recently sat down with over a few cups of coffee.

“My vision for democracy in Thailand is one of a slow and steady awakening. Democracy is an ongoing matter and my job is to be a linker between government and people, enforcing the laws while educating and encouraging people to use democracy in a fair and empowering manner,” said Dr. Suchart. 

Did you know that Thailand’s voter turnout, at 75 percent, is higher than those of the United Kingdom and United States? That Chiang Mai (84 percent) is second only to Lamphun for voter registration nationwide? That Chiang Mai’s Election Commission will be rolling out our country’s first dedicated radio station to offer support and education to people on all matters democracy by the end of the year (94.75 FM)? And that our hill tribe citizens are the group with the highest voter turnout in the country? Upwards of 90 percent of the 200,000 eligible hill tribe voters regularly turn out to vote (the local authorities are even providing election posters and information in Hmong in some areas). In fact, in some mountain districts the number has at times reached 100 percent. 

These are good things. 

On November 3rd the municipal elections will be held. As we speak (if we were to be speaking) faces with either welcoming smiles or airs of authority are nailed to electrical poles, loudspeaker-spewing songtaew trawl the streets and surreptitious envelopes are, I suspect, being handed under tables while larger promises are being made tabletop. At the end of the day, as the commissioner told me, the pitfalls of politics lie within the characters of politicians who need to be outsmarted so that they are no longer able to manipulate votes and voters.  

We said robust, not ideal. 

I recently joined a meeting held by the commission where hundreds of volunteers from all sub-districts of our province were being trained to disseminate information and provide further training to local officers on how to run a fair election. “We still have a krengjai culture here,” Dr. Suchart told me at the meeting. “That is why my position is rotated every four years, so we don’t get too familiar with local players, and also why in some areas people will listen to their leaders – village or community heads – and vote according to what they are told. It is also why some people who accept bribes feel obliged to follow through with their votes.” 

The line between populist policies and straight out vote-buying in this country is blurry at best. Populism can be helpful because it can (read: should) hold politicians accountable for their promises, and if well-monitored and with an electorate which is aware, educated and politically active, it could become a great tool to measure and demand accountability from our elected bodies. However, the law is way, way behind the savvy of politicians, who are adept at sashaying their way down that blurry avenue. If you have been to a local funeral in Chiang Mai, you will most likely notice that every tent, chair, table and even free water-bottles (as well as most prominent wreaths) are “sponsored” by local politicians. This is actually legal, so long as the sponsorship comes out of their own (most likely taxpayer-lined) pockets, and not paid for during the official lead-up to an election. It is cynical political marketing and, to me at least, pretty damn disgusting. Neither the law nor the commission can do anything about this; hence the need for the electorate to wise up and show disdain for such tactics. Frankly, if someone wants to donate monies to help pay for the poor’s funerals, then do it without sticking your name all over someone’s day of grief. Please.

According to Dr. Suchart, because of Chiang Mai’s landscape of political awareness, and despite the fact that many are simply engaged in politics because of hometown boys and girls who are playing on the national stage, he believes that in the next decade or two, Chiang Mai will become a leader in national politics and discourse.

Let’s hope he is right.

Citylife this month:

All sorts of naughty and juicy things to read this month! Hilary Cadigan bares all in her dedication to Citylife by visiting Chiang Mai’s one and only nudist resort (though she would like me to note that she is not featured in any of the pictures) while James Austin Farrell (editor of ChiangMaiCityNews.com) returns to Citylife to wax philosophical and pornographical about Thai ladies and sex shops, twinkie bananas and consumerism…it all makes sense if you read it! Our new intern Vincent Millet writes our cover story on the burgeoning world of Chiang Mai’s street art and I give what I think is a humourous account of my exhausting 60 hours in Japan.