Bangkok by-election a crucial popularity contest for Thailand’s national parties
The Jan 30 by-election in Bangkok’s Constituency 9 will see a riveting battle between the coalition and opposition camps, but also between uneasy allies within the same bloc.
Analysts say the poll will be a test of rival parties’ popularity with voters ahead of the election for Bangkok governor later this year.
Test of popularity
Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU), said the by-election would offer clues to other polls ahead. Meanwhile, parties have already started preparing for the next general election, which is due in 2023 but could be called this year.
That’s why so many parties, old and new alike, are eager to contest for the vacant MP seat. The vote result will help them measure their popularity, noted Yuthaporn.
The by-election was called after ruling Palang Pracharath Party MP Sira Jenjaka lost his seat following a Constitutional Court ruling in late December that he was unqualified to contest the March 2019 general election as he had been convicted of fraud in 1995.
The Constitution prohibits any person convicted in a criminal case from standing for election to the House of Representatives.
“While new political parties can use the by-election to test their popularity in the capital, the big challenge for the old parties will be whether they can retain their political bases [in Bangkok],” said Yuthaporn.
He added that political parties will use the vote result to check their rating among Bangkokians ahead of the crucial gubernatorial election expected around mid this year.
Political analyst Stithorn Thananithichot from King Prajadhipok’s Institute said Bangkok elections often center on tough contests between the two main rival political camps, although candidates from the same bloc also compete for votes.
Among major parties contesting this by-election, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party is seen as sharing its support base with the Kla and Thai Pakdee parties. Opposition- leader Pheu Thai and Move Forward also have overlapping support.
Constituency 9, which covers Lak Si district and part of Chatuchak district, reflects well the capital city’s complex electorate, encompassing a diverse population of working-class and middle-class people, state agencies, and businesses among over 170,000 eligible voters.
Yuthaporn cautioned however that the vote result would not be a definitive measure of the government or opposition’s popularity, as this was a contest in a single constituency.
“We cannot say voters in [Constituency 9] represent all Bangkokians or Thai voters nationwide. The sample size is not big enough,” he said.
The March 2019 general election saw Sira win the MP seat for Constituency 9 with 34,907 votes. Coming in a close second was Surachart Thienthong from Pheu Thai Party with 32,115 votes.
Third place went to Kritsanucha Sunsoen from the now-defunct Future Forward Party, who garnered 25,735 votes. Democrat candidate Wichai Sangprapai came fourth with 16,255 votes, capping a miserable performance in the capital for Thailand’s oldest party.
The upcoming by-election sees a total of eight candidates contesting for the MP seat. Among them are Surachart, who was elected MP for the same constituency in 2011, Sira’s wife and businesswoman Saranrat Jenjaka, who also represents Palang Pracharath, actor-turned-politician Krunphol Tiansuwan from Future Forward’s reincarnation Move Forward, Kla Party secretary-general Atavit Suwannapakdee, and businessman Phanthep Chatnarat from the royalist Thai Pakdee Party.
Palang Pracharath candidates won the majority of by-elections held last year, beating competitors from both the opposition and from fellow coalition parties.
Critics claim its candidates benefited from government power. And this time observers think Saranrat will be at an advantage since her husband Sira was elected at the last poll.
However, STOU expert Yuthaporn judges that Pheu Thai’s Surachart is the frontrunner. Surachart, son of veteran politician Snoh, is a former MP from the constituency and only lost to Sira by a gap of fewer than 3,000 votes.
“[Using] state power only works well in provincial elections. It’s more difficult in the capital,” Yuthaporn said.
The Democrats have opted out of the contest, citing the “political etiquette” that no party should compete to fill a seat lost by a fellow bloc member. Some observers viewed that move as a slap in the face for Palang Pracharath. The ruling party is eagerly contesting by-elections next Sunday (Jan 16) in the southern provinces of Songkhla and Chumphon for vacant MP seats previously held by the Democrats.
Songkhla MP Thaworn Senneam and Chumphon MP Chumpol Julsai lost their parliamentary seats after the Constitutional Court ruled in early December that jail sentences handed to the two former protest leaders of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee had voided their MP status.
Analysts view the Democrats’ absence from the contest as benefitting new parties Kla and Thai Pakdee, rather than boosting Palang Pracharath’s chances.
Both newcomers have allies among Democrat heavyweights and their candidates enjoy a considerable support base in the constituency.
Atavit won an MP seat for Lak Si in 2008 and for Chatuchak in 2011. His former Democrat colleague, deputy Bangkok governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul, who represented the Lak Si-Chatuchak constituency along with him in 2008, has promised to join Atavit’s latest campaign.
Candidates’ pledges to voters
On the first day of candidacy registration last week, aspiring MPs laid out their promises to voters if elected.
Thai Pakdee’s Phanthep unveiled his party’s policy platform of protecting the monarchy, suppressing corruption, and reducing social inequality.
Kla Party’s Atavit pledged to mediate a conflict between local residents stemming from a project to build embankments along the Prem Prachakon and Lat Phrao canals.
Surachart from Pheu Thai vowed to “strongly scrutinize” the government’s budget spending, particularly on projects related to the COVID-19 crisis, to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively.
Krunphol from Move Forward pushed for a wider rollout of COVID-19 booster shots for aging residents in the constituency, as the new variant Omicron is spreading fast.
Palang Pracharath’s Saranrat promised to carry on Sira’s work if elected. She said her focus would be on taking care of vulnerable groups, including the disabled and bed-ridden patients.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk