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Reforms must uproot 'money politics'

Vote-buying undermines every government's legitimate mandate to rule; it's time we tackled this scourge of Thai politics

The country's latest round of political conflict has seen each side question the other's political legitimacy, while insisting that its own actions are morally justified and necessary.

Government politicians say they are legitimately holding onto power because they were elected, while protesters accuse them of "stealing" their mandate through vote-buying, and of condoning widespread corruption.

Government figures have hit back, maintaining that protest leaders have no legitimacy to demand that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra step down and make way for a "people's council". But the protest leaders assert that the premier and her government lost their right to govern when the ruling Pheu Thai Party refused to respect the Constitutional Court's recent verdict striking down a government-backed move for an all-elected Senate.

Each side makes strong points to back its position, but two questions have emerged from the ongoing conflict that challenge those positions. First, is it legitimate to claim a mandate to rule if you won the election by buying votes? Second, is it legitimate to oust a government that includes MPs elected with purchased votes?

The wholesale buying of votes occurs at every level of Thai elections, from village heads up. Only those who are who are directly or indirectly involved in such corruption (or genuinely ignorant of it) will deny that it pervades Thai politics.

But vote-buying isn't just about swaying voters with offers of cash. According to the Election Commission, candidates also "buy votes" by offering large amounts of free food and drink at local functions, by funding parties, sponsoring trips and "educational tours" for targeted groups, and bribing local officials who have influence over voters. In many cases, the funds spent by incumbents to gain voter favour come from the taxpayers themselves.

For these corrupt politicians, vote-buying is a worthwhile investment. After winning an election, they once again have access to public funds, plus kickbacks from public projects under their supervision.

Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, rector of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), says more effective measures are needed to prevent politicians from indulging in the practice. The lure of power is too strong, and many opt to buy their way into office, he says.

Meanwhile more than 79 per cent of the 1,234 people surveyed in a Nida poll late last month agreed with protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban's call for an election system that's free from vote-buying.

However, for many, any attempt to oust a government because some of its MPs are guilty of buying votes is a step too far and illegitimate. But with vote-buying repeatedly being blamed for the election of corrupt politicians, the time has come for political reform that tackles this long-time scourge of Thai politics.


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