17 July 2024

Chadchart Sittipunt is on course to becoming Bangkok’s first elected governor in nine years after securing a landslide victory in Sunday’s gubernatorial election.

According to the unofficial vote count, he garnered more than half of all ballots cast and won in all 50 districts of the capital. As the scale of his victory became apparent, the academic-turned-politician’s rivals conceded defeat.

The unofficial vote count for Chadchart surpassed 1.38 million, outnumbering the accumulated votes of his six closest rivals and breaking the record for Bangkok governor elections.

Surpassing 1-million mark with ease

Only three candidates had gained more than 1 million votes since the first Bangkok gubernatorial election in 1975. MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra set the previous record with 1,256,349 votes at the last Bangkok election in March 2013.

Elections were suspended a year later by the junta that came to power in the May 2014 military coup.

Chadchart promised on Sunday night to “make Bangkok a beautiful metropolis where residents can live happily”.

The governor-elect called for unity and cooperation among all sides. “We will walk together and make this city livable for every one of us,” he said in a speech to his supporters at Bangkok’s Stadium One.

“Let’s walk forward together. We may see things differently, but we should not hate each other,” he added, addressing the bitter political divide that has afflicted Thailand for the past decade.

‘Governor of everyone’

Chadchart also vowed to be “a Bangkok governor for everyone”.

“Whether you voted for me or not, I must serve everyone equally because I represent all Bangkok residents,” he said.

His governor election triumph on Sunday was the first by an independent candidate since June 1996, when underdog Bhichit Rattakul defeated two-time Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang and incumbent Krisda Arunvongse na Ayudhya.

However, unlike Bhichit — who also backed him in this election — Chadchart led in almost all opinion polls in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.

Critics, though, question Chadchart’s claim to be politically independent, pointing out that he was one of three prime ministerial candidates for the opposition Pheu Thai Party at the 2019 general election.

However, Chadchart has dismissed the skeptics, insisting that he is not involved in any political disputes and is not affiliated with any party.

Staggering victory that requires careful reading

Internet star with many memes

Chadchart, 55, drew a large social media following thanks to his performance as transport minister in Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai-led government. Netizens dubbed him “the strongest minister on Earth” for his impressive physical build.

He has also inspired several hundred Internet memes. The most popular features him barefoot in a black sleeveless T-shirt and shorts – a logo promoted by his fans and ridiculed by his critics.

Chadchart is well-known among Bangkok’s large middle class, and described by many voters as “difficult to dislike”.

Born on May 24, 1966, in Bangkok, Chadchart received his bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Chulalongkorn University, then headed to the United States for a master’s degree in Structural Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a doctorate in Engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Before entering politics, he worked as an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering while also serving as the university’s assistant rector.

As an academic, he was appointed adviser on transport matters in the governments of Thaksin Shinawatra and Samak Sundaravej, who was viewed as Thaksin’s proxy.

In 2012, he joined the Pheu Thai-led government at the invitation of then-prime minister Yingluck – first as deputy transport minister and later as transport minister.

While serving as transport minister, Chadchart pushed for a high-speed train project to be funded by 2 trillion baht in government loans. However, the project was aborted after the Constitutional Court ruled against a government bill to approve the massive borrowing.

The court agreed with the opposition Democrat Party’s legal challenge that a law authorizing 2 trillion baht in loans would raise public debt to unacceptably high levels and reduce transparency by bypassing the annual budget process.

Ordeal after the coup

Chadchart was among government figures detained by the military following the May 22, 2014 coup. He recounted on Sunday night – exactly eight years after the coup – being taken with head covered to a mystery location by his captors, before being sent home the same way seven days later.

“Until this day, I still don’t know where I was taken,” he said.

After the coup, the junta-appointed Chadchart to a committee of representatives from conflicting parties, as part of a reconciliation effort brokered by the military’s Internal Security Operations Command.

In September 2017, he was appointed to the junta’s strategy committee on the country’s competitiveness but quit shortly afterwards.

His business record overshadows those of most Thai politicians. Among the key posts he has held are president and CEO of Quality Houses Plc, and independent director at Land and Houses Plc.

He has served as a director of several state enterprises, including The Transport Co Ltd, Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand, and Aeronautical Radio of Thailand. Also, he was a structural engineer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk