Parties target Bangkok poll as bellwether for approaching general election

More than five years since its governor was appointed after a coup, Bangkok is now looking forward to its first gubernatorial election in almost nine years.

Although no date has been set for the citywide election, Bangkok voters are being primed by media reports and opinion surveys on aspiring candidates.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the government to call the gubernatorial election by March, or exactly nine years after the previous one.

The last election in March 2013 saw MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra from the Democrat Party beat Pheu Thai Party’s Pongsapat Pongcharoen in an intensely close race. Both candidates gained more than 1 million votes — making history as previously only Samak Sundaravej had reached that milestone when he won the race in 2000.

Several strong would-be candidates have announced their desire to become next Bangkok governor, while others rumoured to be seeking the city’s top job have yet to go public.

Stakes are high

Significant as an indicator for the general election, Bangkok’s gubernatorial poll often sees fierce battles between major parties seeking to woo the capital’s voters. This time round, government and opposition parties have set their sights on the governor’s seat.

However, Bangkok voters have proved highly unpredictable over the years. They often vote for candidates from the opposition camp or even for a third candidate.

Underdogs regularly defeat more famous candidates. Opinion-poll frontrunners have lost out to the volatile nature of the Bangkok voters, who have a habit of basing their final decisions on developments close to polling day.

The ruling Palang Pracharath Party wants to retain its political base in the capital, after winning the most Bangkok MP seats — 12 out of 30 up for grabs — in the March 2019 general election.

And the party appears to have an advantage as its key figures in the government have the power to decide when the election will be held. The Election Commission is empowered to call the poll but the voting date requires a green light from the Cabinet.

“Certainly, the ruling party will wait until they can be sure of winning the seat,” said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.

However, Palang Pracharath has yet to name any candidates. Initially, the party reportedly backed former police chief Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda, but he surprisingly dropped out of the race in November after months of trying to build a solid support base.

According to recent reports, the party has asked Pathum Thani governor Narongsak Osottanakorn to stand as its candidate for Bangkok governor, but he has yet to publicly accept the offer.

Narongsak shot to fame in 2018 when, as Chiang Rai’s governor, he took charge of the operation to rescue 12 young footballers and their coach from a flooded cave. He was credited for organising an international operation that ended in almost miraculous success. Narongsak served as Lampang governor last year, when the northern province performed well in curbing COVID-19 and rolling out vaccines.

Bid to reclaim seat

The gubernatorial poll offers the coalition Democrat Party a vital opportunity to revive its popularity in Bangkok, after it failed to win a single MP seat in the city at the last general election.

Prior to 2016, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) was led for 12 years consecutively by Democrat governors Apirak Kosayodhin and Sukhumbhand. Both were re-elected but their second terms were cut short by corruption allegations.

Apirak quit to fight the graft charge in 2008 and was eventually cleared by a court in March 2019, but his successor Sukhumbhand was removed by the junta in August 2016.

Current governor Aswin Kwanmuang was, in fact, part of Sukhumbhand’s Democrat team running the BMA. So, it could be said that the Democrats have held the Bangkok governor’s seat for the last 17 years.

Former deputy police chief Aswin, appointed to replace Sukhumbhand in October 2016, is reportedly keen to join the race for the governor’s seat, although he has not yet announced his bid. Observers point to his endorsement by a political group called “Rak Bangkok” as a sign he will run for election.

The Democrats endorsed Professor Suchatvee Suwansawat as their candidate on Monday (Dec 13), coinciding with his resignation as rector of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang.

The civil engineering professor, 49, drew praise for strong managerial skills and creative projects while running the university. He has a PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Dilemma for Pheu Thai

Main opposition party Pheu Thai, which won nine Bangkok MP seats at the 2019 election, desperately wants to secure the governor’s post. However, Pheu Thai faces a dilemma as Chadchart Sittipunt – its former party executive and still its prime ministerial candidate – has decided to run for governor as an independent.

If the party fields a separate candidate, it risks splitting its support base and damaging the chances of both the Pheu Thai candidate and Chadchart, who has campaigned actively for years.

Former senator Rosana Tositrakul is another aspiring candidate, having launched her campaign as early as September 2019. In 2008, she was elected as a senator for Bangkok, gaining the highest vote in the country.

Chadchart, who served as transport minister in the Pheu Thai-led Yingluck Shinawatra government, was among the first to announce his bid for governor. He took a master’s degree in civil engineering at MIT before working as a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering.

The opposition camp’s Move Forward will be seeking to maintain its support base in the capital given that its former incarnation — the disbanded Future Forward Party — won the popular vote in Bangkok with around 800,000 ballots and secured nine MP seats in the March 2019 election.

Move Forward says it will field a “well-known candidate” for the gubernatorial poll, with “a policy platform that will win the hearts of Bangkok residents”.

Calls for no more delay

“All parties have their own goals to reach, so all except Palang Pracharath are pressuring the government to hold the poll soon,” said Yuthaporn.

Asked on Dec 3 when the Bangkok election would be held, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised only that it would be in 2022 “if the situation is peaceful and conflicts decrease”.

Local elections were suspended after the 2014 coup, which was led by then Army chief Gen Prayut. However, since late last year elections of local administrative organizations have been held nationwide. Next, it will be the turn for Bangkok and Pattaya City, where chiefs of city councils and administrative bodies will be elected.

Change in political landscape

According to observers, Bangkok’s political landscape has changed tremendously since the last election in March 2013. Under the post-coup junta, all elected members of the City Council were replaced by appointees.

The Bangkok electorate is complicated and highly unpredictable, with a large share of swing voters, Yuthaporn noted. Bangkok voters have swung between supporting candidates from the national government and voting for their competitors, said the analyst.

However, the pandemic crisis could help decide this election, he added.

“In the current political situation, as the government is facing COVID-19 and a bad economy, [Bangkok voters] are likely to vote against [government-backed candidates],” he said.

No close competition?

For observers, the next gubernatorial election will be among the most interesting, given there are so many strong choices for voters. In previous elections, the number of candidates has often exceeded a dozen, and even 20 on occasions, but there were only a few strong candidates.

Recent opinion surveys show Chadchart is the runaway favorite. He gained 34 per cent of support in the latest poll released early this month by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA). Seventeen per cent of the 1,318 respondents chose Aswin and almost 12 per cent said they were undecided.

“Many candidates are fresh, famous, qualified and capable, but I don’t think it will be a neck-and-neck race. Chadchart is still at an advantage,” said Yuthaporn.

However, the analyst warned that Chadchart’s popularity could be undermined if he allows Pheu Thai to intervene in his campaign. Doing so would “waste years of his effort and devotion”, he said.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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