Nakhon Ratchasima: In his final days as a “Red Shirt” rabble-rouser, Suporn “Rambo Isaan” Attawong urged farmers to take up martial arts in defence of Thai democracy as a coup loomed.
Now he is contesting national elections for a party aligned to the junta which seized power weeks later – a face-turn in a nation where pragmatism often trumps ideology and cash coaxes voter loyalty.
“Politics is a competition,” he says of his political reversal.
Thailand is often cast as a country neatly split between the pro-democracy movement and the army-aligned establishment.
But after two coups in 13 years, the political landscape is more roughly hewn.
It is tacked together by local politicians with large vote banks and who backing the winning side.
Suporn was dubbed “Rambo Isaan” by the media for his tough guy persona and heritage in Isaan – the poor north-east which carries the most votes in parliament.
But his fortunes were imperilled by the coup that took out the government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
At the time a lawmaker for her Pheu Thai ruling party, Suporn was detained by the military.
He emerged renouncing his previous affiliations on television.
His about-turn will be complete if he wins his district seat in Nakon Ratchasima province on March 24 for the junta-aligned Phalang Pracharat party.
He says his change came after he accepted he was “part of the conflict” tearing the nation apart.
Thai power is sharply hierarchical, with patronage networks fanning out from Bangkok, through provincial government and down to village headmen.
The Shinawatras perfected the art of pulling in provincial votes.
Universal healthcare, farm subsidies and village funds bettered life in long-neglected rural areas of the country and also bolstered the popularity of local politicians.
Many of these MPs grew powerful under the Shinawatras but flipped when a long stay in power for the military seemed obvious.
The defectors are “vote magnets, because they are providers”, says Chulalongkorn University politics professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak.
This system of patronage disadvantages newcomers.
The task of convincing grassroots voters to swap sides falls to trusted canvassers who often sit under politicians’ wings.
“Canvassers are like salesmen approaching clients,” a source said.
“No matter how loyal voters are, money can change it,” he added. —AFP