11 July 2024

The city gubernatorial election was always, in the distant past, romanticized. Chamlong Srimuang with “cheap” campaign posters made of rural household utensils, Bhichit Rattakul with a tree-hugging and overwhelmingly-underdog image and Samak Sundaravej’s “swan song” come to mind. However, national divide played the most decisive part in the last Bangkok poll, which saw much-maligned incumbent Sukhumbhand Paribatra riding anti-Thaksin sentiment to a record and most unexpected landslide victory.

The next gubernatorial election will most likely continue to be idealized. A lot of voters will cast their ballots along ideological lines just like they did when Sukhumbhand and Pongsapat Pongcharoen of the Pheu Thai Party squared off in 2013. In other words, flood-fighting and town-planning qualifications can go out the window.

Yet this coming election presents the Pheu Thai-led opposition alliance with the best opportunity to rattle the Prayut government. For Pheu Thai, it’s also the party’s best chance to penetrate Bangkok, where anti-Thaksin sentiment is believed to be high.

Pheu Thai is mooting the candidacy of Chadchart Sittipunt, who like Pongsapat is leading comfortably in early popularity polls. Whether he will end up like the latter would remain to be seen, but Thaksin Shinawatra is not Chadchart’s only problem.

Standing in his way is not just Thaksin, but also Pheu Thai’s biggest ally, the Future Forward Party. Statistics from the March 24 general election and the continued Thanathorn fever heavily favor Future Forward if it is to field its own Bangkok gubernatorial candidate. The party garnered slightly more than 800,000 votes on March 24, compared with more than 845,000 for Palang Pracharat. Pheu Thai won slightly over 600,000 votes.

A well-known political scientist has urged Future Forward to step aside for Chadchart to increase in chances of winning and show solidarity of the opposition bloc. Will Future Forward do that, knowing it has a great opportunity to win itself and paint the Thai capital orange for Prayut and the world to see?

Palang Pracharat and the Democrats are in a more or less similar situation. As a newcomer, the former did well in Bangkok on March 24, largely at the expense of the latter. The coalition leader has shown clear intention to compete, while the Democrats will feel that the Bangkok gubernatorial election is a chance to redeem itself.

Democrat and Palang Pracharat candidates can take votes off each other. The same goes for Pheu Thai and Future Forward if they decide to field their own candidates.

Another factor that shall never be overlooked is legal cases besetting Future Forward and its leaders. One earth-shattering court ruling could change the entire complexion of the gubernatorial game.

By all means, the Bangkok election is the most important for the opposition. It is more significant than a charter reform showdown that the opposition stands a little chance of winning, or any kind of parliamentary confrontations that only briefly catch public attention like flashes in the pan.

At the newly-ended policy debate, the opposition did a satisfactory job discrediting the prime minister and his Cabinet. Bad news is the Dusit Poll, which says a big majority of respondents, more than 70 % to be exact, don’t feel the parliamentary session benefited them. When praises die down and reality sinks in, it is clear that it’s only half the job done for the Thai opposition, and the other half is a lot harder.

The Pheu Thai-led bloc did exactly what it had threatened to do at the policy debate. It hammered away at Prayut Chan-o-cha’s controversial retention of power and contentious backgrounds of some other Cabinet members. Problem is much of that had been said before and dethroning this government requires something farther from politicians and closer to ordinary citizens.

Constitutionally and numerically, it is next to impossible for the Pheu Thai alliance to outvote its opponents when electing the next prime minister. As Prayut can only crumble on the weight of corruption scandals if he chooses to tackle them the old-fashioned way, the opposition bloc has to pin its hope on unearthing graft and other irregularities involving the administration and expose them like they are.

A realistic and more immediate blow can be delivered at the Bangkok gubernatorial poll. A victory will be of high political and strategic significance. And there are strong signs that the opposition can do it, which leaves the question of whether the two main allies in the bloc are capable of being a tag team when it matters.