Thailand started decentralization in earnest in 1994. It has been over a decade that decentralization in Thailand has been implemented. This article examines the effects of decentralization on provincial power structures,1) presenting empirical evidence from fi eld research in two case study provinces. The author argues that although decentralization over the last decade has brought about a reinvention of local selfgovernment organizations, powerful MPs of the pre-decentralization era have regained and amassed even more power and have further entrenched themselves, mainly owing to their preeminent ability to win a large portion of vote.
Why have the powerful MPs and their cliques remained in power despite the recent decentralization?There are three major reasons. Decentralization has brought various changes to politics in the provinces. Local government organizations—PAOs, municipalities and TAOs—gained new powers and more freedom to control their budgets and personnel. In addition, rather than spreading power to various groups of people, thereby creating opportunities for new political forces to challenge the old elites giving voters a wider fi eld of candidates to choose from, decentralization has instead achieved the opposite.It allowed the already powerful MPs a chance to adapt to the new setting and take advantage of decentralization. Nevertheless, there do appear to be some exceptional cases. In Pathum Thani a change in the power confi guration affected immensely the local power bloc’s electoral loss. The loss was not so much due to decentralization, but resulted rather because of the problems this group encountered in accumulating and maintaining its resources, especially confl icts of interest whether within local politics or at the level of national politics, to keep its provincial network loyal and its ties with national leaders strong. This article shows that most of the members of parliament (MPs) who wielded political power in their respective provinces before decentralization were still able to maintain control over their domain by exploiting the opportunities created by the new administrative framework. The ability of these MPs to retain power was the result of having ample “war chests” of money and other resources at their disposal, as well as the political capital they preserved via networks of supporters, cliques, subordinates, community leaders and vote canvassers. Moreover, these MPs possessed the necessary electoral experience to allow them to adapt to the rules and procedures of the new system.In short, decentralization in the last decade appears to have had very little effect on political power structures in the provinces. The MPs of the pre-decentralization era have regained and amassed more power and have further entrenched themselves, mainly owing to their preeminent ability to win a large portion of the vote. If change in political structures must happen in the future,it is most likely that new political forces—either coming from reformist groups or from up-and-coming families—would have to fi nd their way to preeminence outside the arenas of decentralized politics, because they cannot rely much on what the decentralization process has laid out for them.