Voting with the wallet
It’s difficult to make any social or economic analysis of how people vote in Thai elections because the data are simply not available. In many countries exit pollsters collect information on how people voted along with data on income, social status, gender, and even attitudes. Here in Thailand, the Election Commission has banned such surveys. The state seems opposed to the collection of this sort of information, probably because of what it might reveal.
But you can do a bit of rough estimation with the figures that are available. One simple question is whether people’s voting is affected by how well-off they are.
At the 2007 general election, the average income of people in provinces which voted Democrat was two-and-a-half times the average income in provinces which voted for PPP.
(Technical stuff. The income comes from the 2007 Gross Provincial Product tables. A party “won” the province if it got more seats than any other party. Yes, Bangkok distorts the result, but not by very much. Taking Bangkok out of the calculation, the Democrat-voting provinces still had around twice the average income per head as the PPP -voting provinces.)
In the 2007 election year, the average income per head for the whole country was 128,606 baht. In the 25 Democrat-voting provinces, it was around 221,000 baht, well above the average. In the 32 PPP-voting provinces, it was around 93,000 baht, well below the average. What’s more, the pattern was relatively consistent. Only a handful of “poor” provinces voted Democrat. And only four provinces with income above the national average voted PPP (all on the outskirts of the capital).
A difference of two or two-and-a-half times is pretty large. An average family in the Democrat-voting provinces has an annual income of around 750,000 baht. In the PPP-voting provinces, the equivalent figure was only 300,000 baht.
But of course simple income can be very misleading as a guide to how well-off people really are. What about health and education and other indicators of the quality of life? One of the most sensitive markers of real poverty is malnutrition in infants and young children. The numbers have fallen sharply in Thailand over the past two decades, but there are still some areas where the figures are still significant. The provinces with the worst record on malnutrition are all in the outer northeast. Those provinces all voted PPP in 2007. The provinces with the next-worse record are in the inner northeast and upper north. All but one of these provinces voted PPP. None of them voted Democrat.
In the provinces which voted Democrat, there are around twice as many doctors per head of population as in the provinces which voted PPP. On average children stay at school for about a year and a half longer. In the PPP-voting provinces, a far larger proportion of schools are rated as of poor quality.
Most development indicators show the same pattern, with two exceptions. The PPP-voting provinces rank higher than the Democrat-voting provinces on the quality of family and community life, and on the level of social and political participation.
The UN has a Human Achievement Index which ranks all the provinces in terms of their human development. In 2007, most of the Democrat-voting provinces came in the top half of the ranking, with an average position of 22nd. Most of the PPP-voting provinces came in the bottom half of the ranking, with an average position of 45th. (Again, removing Bangkok changes this a bit but not much.)
Of course, you can look at these findings in many ways. A cynic might say that the PPP wins in the poorer provinces because it is cheaper to buy the votes there. Someone more idealistic might imagine that the poorer provinces voted PPP because the people there thought a PPP-led government would give them more help than a Democrat-led one.
The daily news is again filled with tales of politicians squabbling over suspiciously lucrative deals, coalition parties gaily stabbing one another in the back, generals dreaming of forming political parties to lead the country again, government agencies valiantly suppressing opportunities for free expression, and government spokesmen spouting nonsense with poker faces. This return of politics-as-usual is very comforting. It’s hard to recall that only a few weeks ago angry youths were hurling concrete blocks onto politicians’ cars, and launching blazing buses at the troops. And that a few days before that, large numbers of people dressed in red had been complaining about injustice, double standards, and privilege.
It’s comforting to feel that politics is just about wheeler-dealing among the gods, rather than about the resolution of deep-seated conflicts in the society. But it would probably be a mistake to be too comforted, too unmindful. There are now some blunt, simple realities underlying Thai politics which are not going to disappear however many new parties are formed and however many back-room deals are made.