The Long View The Thais and us (1)
Joe Studwell in “Asian Godfathers” wrote that in Southeast Asia, two countries stand out for the promiscuous attitudes of their politicians when it comes to party affiliation: the Philippines and Thailand. The question is, why? The answer, according to some scholars, lies in a phenomenon known as “bossism.” Whether caciques, godfathers or, as they’re called in Thailand, chao pho: political bosses with their mafia-like rackets that blur distinctions between legal and illegal and “bossism” are at home in our country and in Thailand. John Thayet Sidel in “Capital, coercion and crime,” however, pointed out that “bossism” in Thailand differs from that in the Philippines in two ways. First, unlike the Philippines, where Sidel believes the problem is that democratic institutions were put in place at too early a stage of capitalist development (at the beginning of the 20th century), in Thailand “enormous Bangkok-based financial, agribusiness, and industrial conglomerates and up-country magnates with province- or region-wide empires were already entrenched and equipped with ample resources for electoral competition” when democratic institutions were introduced – in the 1980s.
In our country, Sidel argues, political bosses “have derived their power and wealth not from private landownership but from state resources and commercial capital,” so that, for example, it’s not that the landed came to control politics, but rather, for some politicians, politics was the means to acquire land. Philippine bosses, then, may start as nobodies but then become entrenched as people of consequence depending on how well they play the appointments game locally or nationally, and put a squeeze on the collection of tolls and issuing licenses, to get wealthy, and stay that way. Sidel describes our political system as one in which the state and its institutions are at the service of its officials, instead of the officials serving the state.
On the other hand, Sidel says that in Thailand “prominent Bangkok bankers and industrialists ; themselves assumed political party leadership posts or otherwise engineered alliances with regional clusters of chao pho, and provincial businessmen have in some cases exercised chao pho-like influence over multiple constituencies or even provinces.” And second, according to Sidel, the parliamentary nature of Thailand’s political system “encouraged a highly fluid system of political parties held together largely by patronage networks (regional and national) and personal ties and coalition governments stitched together through multiparty Cabinets.”
In the Philippines, the pecking order among local bosses is known to all and underscored by long experience – from barangay (village) to the municipality, to the province, to the presidency (where each new chief executive essentially creates a super-party, the administration, for the duration of his term), everyone knows their place and the limits of their powers: it is near-absolute within their fiefdoms, but ends where the fiefdom of the next boss begins; with everyone more or less following the custom of subordinating themselves to the president who serves as referee and dispenser of national patronage. In Thailand, on the other hand, “it has been difficult to build a truly nation-wide political party greater than the sum of its – local – parts. Thus chao pho exercising control over several constituencies have found it relatively easy to install themselves or their stooges in the Cabinet and thereby to wield considerable influence over the internal affairs of key central ministries and their local line agencies.”
To my mind this suggests that while Filipino politicians have been conditioned to fall in line behind each new president, Thai politicians see no reason to submit to a prime minister, since no real limits exist to the influence of the Cabinet; therefore, the goal becomes to seize as many portfolios as possible and if possible, keep a PM subordinate to the Cabinet. In a paper updating his book, Sidel described the Thai parliamentary system’s evolution as follows: “While Bangkok-based magnates commanded tremendous financial resources, only province-based businessmen enjoyed links to large blocs of voters in the country’s overwhelmingly rural constituencies, and parliamentary seats promised influence over ; the Thai state. With the vast majority of parliamentary ; constituencies located in rural areas, it is thus no surprise that by 1990, nearly half of all Cabinet members were provincial businessmen.”
Until recently, the opposite seemed to be the case here at home. The growing percentage of Filipinos living in urban, and not rural, areas, meant that more urbanized Luzon, for example, comprised votes that equaled the much less urbanized Visayas and Mindanao combined; the accessibility of mass media, specifically radio and television (and the movies) meant, too, that local bosses became less useful, politically, in terms of the votes they could offer: unless fraud was required. But even then, their usefulness was only potentially there, in the case of a close presidential race, for example. But whether armed with an air of political inevitability, as was the case with Estrada, or a plausible machinery (the case with Arroyo until 2005), both presidents proved that once in office, the overall instinct of the population and the political class is to fall in line behind whichever president is actually in office. And once out of power, Estrada has been less able to chip away at Arroyo’s authority than, say, Thaksin has, in Thailand. Both Estrada and Arroyo fall into Sidel’s mold of Philippine bosses deriving their powers from holding office (Estrada, more classically, as mayor in San Juan; Arroyo, more subtly, gaining experience and allies handling the old Philippine textile quotas after EDSA); Thaksin fits Sidel’s description of Thai bosses being big businessmen, then entering politics. (To be continued)