“WE vote for policies, not for a party,” declares Jutamas Kamsomsri, a housewife in a farming family in the village of Nakam. “We aren’t stupid, we watch the news on Facebook,” the bespectacled matriarch adds. This in itself may be news to those who assume that voters in Isaan, a poor region in north-east Thailand that is home to roughly a third of the country’s 69m people, are blindly loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister deposed in a coup in 2006, and to his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who ran the country for almost three years until another coup ousted her in 2014.
Parties associated with the family have won every election since 2001, thanks to votes from Thailand’s north and north-east. Their supporters call themselves “red shirts” and are stalwarts of the Shinawatras’ current political vehicle, the Pheu Thai party (PT). Given that history, however, Isaan’s farmers are surprisingly ambivalent about how they will vote if the military regime allows thrice-delayed parliamentary elections to be held in November, as promised.
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Isaan is vast and carpeted in paddy-fields. Hunks of cassava are spread out on the roads to dry. Locals grumble over the prices they receive for their grains, sugar cane and tapioca, as almost everyone works on the land (just over a third of Thai workers do overall). A surge in agricultural prices between 2001 and 2012 is remembered fondly. They have wobbled ever since. Dogs and children thread through the streets of forlorn villages while the elderly gossip. Almost everyone of working age is in Bangkok; the region has little industry of its own. A quarter of households are headed by an old person, a much higher share than in the country as a whole.
Money can buy you love
The Shinawatras’ popularity was the result of populist policies. Isaan’s love was dearly, and ingeniously, bought. Take rice subsidies. Mr Thaksin introduced payments for farmers which became more generous under his sister. Six years ago Ms Yingluck’s government began to buy the grain directly from farmers at roughly 50% more than the prevailing international price. This hoarding was supposed to create scarcity abroad (Thailand was the world’s biggest exporter at the time), allowing the government to offload its stock without big losses. But other exporters filled the gap. The scheme, fraught with corruption, ended up costing the government $16bn. The army used the fiasco as an excuse to seize power. Ms Yingluck fled the country in August before the verdict was delivered in a related case against her for negligence.
Other beloved Shinawatra policies include the 30-baht scheme, which allowed the poor and sick to consult a doctor for about $1. Across Isaan women working at looms and men tapping rubber also speak of their appreciation for Mr Thaksin’s brutal anti-drugs campaign (a model for the current one in the Philippines), his support for student loans and his glitzy international connections. “Thaksin’s good for exports!” reckons one.
But the enthusiasm is not ubiquitous—not even in Nakam, where PT triumphed at the most recent election. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a professor of politics at Ubon Ratchathani University, reckons the party “can’t take Isaan for granted”. For one thing, the ruling junta has kept many of the Shinawatras’ most popular policies. Subsidies to rice farmers are still doled out: in September the government approved $2.2bn in loans and handouts to help stabilise prices ahead of the harvest.
Critics say such policies encourage households to take on more and more debt. However, unlike under Ms Yingluck, the spending is curtailed. For example, if farmers register their land properly, they can get 1,200 baht for each rai of land they farm (one rai is equivalent to 1,600 square metres). But the payouts are only available to smallholders. A woman who farms a tiny plot believes that this arrangement is better than previous subsidies. Farmers benefited from PT’s generous prices for rice only if they had excess rice to sell. The smallest, poorest farmers, who harvest the few rai they own to feed their families, did not benefit at all, she says.
The junta also wants to move beyond this kind of handout. In a popular step, new social welfare cards appeared in October. These provide 200-300 baht ($6.26-9.39) a month to those who earn less than 100,000 baht a year—some 11m people. They can spend it only on approved goods, such as rice and soap, and only in certain shops. The poorer people are, the more they receive. The government took months to get the registration process right, to be sure it was including only the truly needy, says Nathporn Chatusripitak of the deputy prime minister’s office. Next month government workers will start meeting those with cards to help them manage their finances and enroll in schemes to improve their incomes, he says. Poor farmers will be taught to grow new, more lucrative crops, better suited to the local environment. The scheme aims to stop the “vicious cycle” of dependence on crop-price subsidies, says Mr Nathporn.
In short, the generals have taken a leaf from the Shinawatras’ book, and are winning support as a result. What is more, disenchantment with politicians persists even though the army has squashed Thailand’s democracy. A law banning political gatherings of more than five people means that parties will struggle to create and publicise policies zappy enough to entice voters. Besides, under the constitution Thais approved in a referendum 18 months ago, the army will select the entirety of Thailand’s upper house and will need the backing of just a quarter of elected lawmakers to secure their choice of prime minister. Many in Isaan assume that Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta leader, will remain prime minister even if elections take place. One village boss believes he will be tainted in the process: “If he runs in the election he won’t be as strong as he is now. He will become a politician.”