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Beyond “Network Monarchy”: The Influence of the Aristocracy in Thai Elections

Updated: Jun 7, 2019

By Carly Madsen and Joel Selway


Picture: Election Campaign poster of Duantemduang Na Chiangmai in the mayoral elections of Chiangmai City, 2007.

Source: New Mandala (link)


Most studies on the influence of Thailand’s aristocracy focus on dynamics at the Center, or, to use Duncan McCargo’s term, on the “Network Monarchy.” However, Thailand’s elite exert a much broader social influence beyond involvement in politics at the very highest echelons of power. In this article, we explore how aristocratic names shape voters’ perception of electoral candidates. The study provides insights into how deeply ingrained the influence of the aristocracy is, revealing how the transformation to a truly meritocratic democracy will take a lot more than the return to free and fair elections.


Quick Takeaways:

Thai voters use surnames as informational heuristics in making voting decisions, favoring elites’ surnames ceteris paribus.

This effect is more pronounced amongst lower income voters and especially Democrat voters

Educating voters on the need to make decisions meritocratically reduces the aristocratic advantage.

Providing voters information on the qualifications of candidates eliminates the aristocratic advantage.


Background

As the countdown to the next general Thai election continues, observers from around the world wait to see if the results of this election will spark any real changes to the Thai status quo. Most of the focus has been on the change in electoral fortunes of the country’s political parties, or on the continued influence of the military. However, there is another element of Thai elections that seems much more ingrained: the influence of elite families.


Elite families appear in democratic politics the world over. Even the United States has been dominated by the Bush and Clinton families for the better part of four decades. However, other countries’ elites have ties to alternative forms of political legitimacy, such as religion or monarchy, that may further undermine the legal-rational basis of democratic elections.


As a constitutional monarchy, Thailand’s royal family is officially above politics. A recent attempt by the King’s elder sister, Princess Ubolrat, to run as the nominee for Prime Minister for the Thai Raksa Chart party, was prematurely cut short by both a denunciation of the nomination by the King himself and also an official ruling by Thailand’s Election Commission shortly after.


Outside of the immediate royal family, however, a much larger network of elites exist. These families are often blood-related (albeit quite distantly) or are long-standing members of the patronage network that surrounds the royal family. Duncan McCargo has referred to this as “network monarchy.”[1] This network monarchy has been linked to many of the most significant events in Thailand’s recent political history, including two coups, numerous mass protests, the ousting of Thaksin-linked prime ministers, and the dissolution of political parties.[2]


However, these elite families exert influence in other ways too. They are at the top of a social hierarchy that is strongly vertical in nature.[3] Thus, in numerous arenas of everyday life in Thailand--in workplaces, business, local government, education, and the legal system alike--vestiges of traditional power remain. This article explores how these social dynamics transfer to the electoral arena. Is there an aristocratic advantage for elite candidates? Which sectors of society are most susceptible to their influence? And what tactics are effective in evening the playing field?


Thai Surnames as Signals of Aristocracy

In Thailand, certain traits of names can indicate a family’s connection to the aristocratic class. Longer family namesare often a sign of status, as the ability to take five-syllable names--while others were limited to four syllables--was extended to only royals and certain friends of the palace in a decision in 1962.[4]


We focus on one other common surname trait: the “Na” suffix followed by the name of a city. The city part of the name refers to the administrative seat of some historic minor kingdom or important city within Siam. Thailand only very recently became a nation-state with defined territorial borders, a system of politics originating from Europe and exported around the world during the colonial era. Prior to this, Thailand (then Siam) was part of an international system that scholars refer to as a Mandalasystem. These mandalas were made up of a dominant kingdom at the Center (Siam) in connection with numerous smaller kingdoms (e.g. Lanna, Pattani). As the British and French surrounded Siam, it was forced to fix its borders, leaving these various minor kingdoms within its modern boundaries.


Those ruling elite were slowly expired, mostly co-opted into the new Western-style bureaucracy that Siam created.[5] For example, Na Chiangmai is the surname of the former royal family of the Kingdom of Lanna, which inhabited Thailand’s northern region. Some local governors of important cities within the Siamese kingdom were also given “Na” surnames, e.g. Na Chumpon, Na Ratchasima. “Na Ayutthaya” is a special surname. It is added to the names of fourth-generation (or below) descendants of the current Chakri dynasty. These Na surnames are one of the most recognizable upper-class family names in Thailand.[6]


In short, voters can make good guesses as to which electoral candidates are from the upper ranks of Thai society.


Testing the Aristocratic Advantage

In a study of around 2,000 people conducted in 2015 and 2016, we presented respondents with four hypothetical candidates. Two of the candidates had “Na” surnames; the other two had commoner surnames. All respondents had to do is say which of the four they would vote for. If respondents are not using names as a cue, they would vote at random and would vote for elites 50% of the time.


We randomly assigned respondents to either a control group, where they saw just the candidates’ names, or to one of three treatment groups. Respondents in the treatment groups were given additional information on the qualifications of the candidates and/or voter education on the importance of choosing candidates based on merit.


In the control group, there was a preference for the elite candidates. They were selected 53% of the time. This shows that Thai voters are using eliteness as a cue for something. We don’t know what that is from this study. It could be that they perceive them as more qualified. It could be that they are simply subjected to the culture of elites deserving to be in leadership positions.


Results by class/income:

This aristocratic advantage is more pronounced amongst low-income voters. They vote for the elite candidates 55.3% of the time; high-income voters just 46.4% of the time, indicating a slight bias against elites. This latter result is surprising given the rhetoric of polarization in Thai politics. High-income voters are normally perceived as more likely to vote for the Democrat Party, participate in mass protests against Thaksin-affiliated governments, and support military intervention into politics. The logic given is that they are either part of the elite, or are more sympathetic to elite ideals. Our survey shows that this is likely an oversimplification. It is low-income voters who have a positive bias toward the elite when it comes to voting.


Results by Party:

But party preference and income do not completely overlap. So, what if we just look at partisanship instead? Indeed, the figure drops slightly for Pheu Thai voters to 52.2%. What is interesting, though is that the preference for elite candidates skyrockets for Democrat voters to 73.7%. Individuals who stated no party preference dip just below the middle to 49.3%.


Combating the Aristocratic Advantage

We test the effect of two methods to combat a voting bias toward elites. First, we simply provide information on the candidates' qualifications. We designed the experiments such that the elite candidates were always the least qualified. Second, we tested a voter education campaign reminding respondents that they should select candidates based on merit. Both treatments work in combating the aristocratic advantage.


Information on Qualifications:

Telling respondents about the candidates' qualifications had the biggest all-around effect, for members of both low- and high-income groups, as well as members of all parties. On average, the proportion voting for elites drops to 25.0%. For low-income respondents, it drops to 28.4%. For high-income voters, it falls all the way to 17.7%. Pheu Thai voters fall to 30.5%, those with no party preference to 20.7%, and Democrats to 20.6%. Thus, although Democrats are the most biased toward elites in the absence of any other information, they are the least likely to vote for them once they know the elite candidates are less qualified.


Voter Education: Merit

Educating voters on merit also reduces bias toward elite candidates. On average, respondents who received the merit treatment voted for elites 42.8% of the time. For low-income voters, the drop was only to 45.4%. High-income voters fell to 38.7%. Pheu Thai voters fall to 40.5%, Democrats to 41.4%, and those with no party preference to 45.9%.


Summary

While the number of elite families in the Thai government has decreased over time, they continue to exert significant social and political influence.[7] Thailand is not the only country susceptible to voting for candidates based on elite names, but the process of improving Thai democracy will continue to be hindered by electorates who are chosen based on prestige and not political proficiency.[8] The corruption of Thai politics is deepened when voters implicitly support candidates who will reinforce clientelist traditions in order to enhance and protect their family dynasties.[9] In addition to free and fair elections, Thais must be committed to providing clear information to voters about the qualifications and merit of electoral candidates if their country is to make serious strides toward true democracy.

Notes:

[1]McCargo, Duncan. "Network monarchy and legitimacy crises in Thailand." The Pacific Review18, no. 4 (2005): 499-519.

[2]Baker, Chris. "The 2014 Thai coup and some roots of authoritarianism." Journal of Contemporary Asia 46, no. 3 (2016): 388-404.

[3]Katja Rangsivek. Trakun, Politics and the Thai State. Social Anthropology and ethnology. University of Copenhagen, 2013. English.

[4]The Nation. November 11, 1995.

[5]Vickery, Michael. "Thai regional elites and the reforms of King Chulalongkorn." The Journal of Asian Studies 29, no. 4 (1970): 863-881.

[6]Handley, Paul M. The king never smiles: a biography of Thailand's Bhumibol Adulyadej. Yale University Press, 2006.

[7]Ockey, James. "Thai political families: The impact of political inheritance." TRaNS: Trans-Regional and-National Studies of Southeast Asia3, no. 2 (2015): 191-211.

[8]Backman, Michael. "You’re Who? Names in Asia." In Inside Knowledge, pp. 8-17. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2005.

[9]Nishizaki, Yoshinori. "Ironic political reforms: elected senators, party-list MPs, and family rule in Thailand." Critical Asian Studies(2019): 1-22.