HIGHTOWER: Thailand's Cash Democracy

On his recent post-election victory trip to Asia, President Bill Clinton made a special stopover in Thailand.Why Thailand as opposed to Indonesia or Malaysia or, as Bob Dole would have said, "wherever"?Well, one reason might have been to study this Asian nation's fascinating system of electioneering -- where money is distributed even more freely than in our own corrupted, electoral process. The difference is that in Thailand, the politicians pay the people!This is not the old under-the-table Chicago ward-politics, but straight-out, wholesale vote-buying. According to New York Times reporter Seth Mydans, rolls of Thai banknotes -- called "baht" -- are handed-out at Buddhist ceremonies, dance contests, movies and other public functions by various political parties seeking support for their candidates. An entire family's votes can be bought for about 1,500 baht, or even a whole polling station for maybe 80,000 baht.A former government official in Thailand says, "I call it commercial democracy, the purchased mandate. We have applied capitalism to everything, including democracy."Indeed, election eve in Thailand is known as "the night of howling dogs," because of the barking that is set-off in the villages as vote buyers go from house-to-house making payments [barks, howls]. The most fascinating aspect of the Thai system is, believe-it-or not, the integrity of it. Once bought, the villagers can be counted on to deliver their votes as promised. It is a society built on networks of mutual trust and assistance, and that includes vote-buying.There are reformers, but they despair of stopping the pay-off system. "I'm sick of this," says one, "but I just don't know what to do."In our country, elections are stolen from the people by special corporate interests buying the politicians. At least in Thailand the people get cash back.

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