KHON KAEN – MP candidates from nine different political parties took the stage in a Khon Kaen University auditorium on Tuesday afternoon to present their respective party platforms on local governance and decentralization. In a campaign season largely dominated by populist-policy one-upmanship, this event focused more on the parties’ commitments to local democratic development in Thailand.

Over 300 students and Khon Kaen locals gathered at KKU’s College of Local Administration (CoLA) to hear the day’s presentations on a topic rarely addressed by politicians.

Though Thailand is home to one of the most fiscally centralized governments in Southeast Asia, politicians have shown little interest in discussing details of decentralization and local democratic reform. As of 2003, Thailand’s local government administrations spent only 10% of total government expenditures, far behind Vietnam’s 48% and Indonesia’s 32%. The proportion has since grown, but Thailand still lags behind its neighbors.

Candidates field questions from the audience.

Candidates field questions from the audience.

Tuesday’s speakers, all of them candidates in the July 3 parliamentary election, finally broached the long-ignored issue of expanding local government but most failed to give specific details and plans. Some shied away from the topic altogether while others spoke only vaguely about decentralization policies and instead leaned on their familiar promises of economic stimulation.

Lt. Theudsak Meesawat, from the little-known Palang Muanchon Party, and Thaigon Phonsuwan of Rak Santi, a new party running on a platform of a “clean image,” merely emphasized how access to higher quality education would improve local government.

Dr. Somyong Kaewsupan of Chart Pattana Puea Pandin carefully dodged the topic entirely. “Decentralization is not easy because of conflicts of interests,” he said. Instead, he chose to talk about issues of land rights.

Similarly, Chesada Tantibanchachai of the Social Action Party only wanted to talk about better irrigation policies.

And, as yellow-clad supporters waved “Vote No” banners, For Heaven and Earth MP candidate Riawfa Nawabuniyom simply insisted, “Election does not always mean democracy. Sometimes, it leads to dictatorship.”

Ultimately, candidates from the New Politics Party, Democrat Party, Pheu Thai, and Matubhum presented the most concrete policies. They focused on greater funds for local governments and touched on the possibility of gubernatorial elections.

“Because of Thai corruption, we need to abolish these provincial administrations and start anew,” Prasat Phonmachayonan of the New Politics Party announced with conviction. As his enthusiasm was met with cheers and applause, Mr. Prasat added, shouting into the microphone, that governors should be directly elected and 70% of government funds should be allocated locally.

The Democrat Kanok Wantrangan spoke more conservatively. He said, “We believe in decentralization,” and added that “[the central government] needs to transfer more responsibility and larger budgets to local governments.” He also proposed that the Governor of Chiang Mai should be locally elected, and six other tourist areas should have special local governments geared towards tourism.

After Pheu Thai ‘s candidate Chawalit Wichayasut praised the efficacy of his party’s Million Baht Village fund, he agreed, “[The central government] needs to allocate more grants to local governments.” He also proposed that Governors should be elected in certain provinces and that local governments in the three southernmost provinces should be granted greater autonomy.

Phichet Phathanachot of Matubhum, a small party with much Southern support, also spoke about the need for stronger local leadership in tourist destinations. He announced that he “one-hundred percent agrees with the need for decentralization and strong local government,” and clarified that Governors should be more locally knowledgeable, especially in touristic provinces.

Professor Emeritus Gayl D. Ness from the University of Michigan, who works with CoLA to research decentralization reform in Thailand, explained that appointed Governors in Thailand rarely know the needs of the communities they serve.

“In Thailand, [Governors] move around [between administrations] to get advancements,” he said. “If Governors are elected they will need to be in one place, more rooted in the local administration.” When Governors are more rooted in one administration, he argues, they understand their community better and can respond to its needs more effectively.

After the presentation had come to a close, Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, the Dean of CoLA at KKU,  elaborated on his hopes for local administration in his country. “I’d like to see the kind of local government that has more administrative power,” he explained, bemoaning the power of appointed Governors over locally-elected administrators.

“Unfortunately, quite a few of [the candidates] today did not give enough importance to the issues of local management and local administration,” he concluded.