Shot down by junta, should Bangkok district councils be resurrected?
The first Bangkok governor and council elections since the 2014 coup restored some control over city rule to its residents earlier this year. However, the capital is still missing its third level of elected officials – councilors for each of its 50 districts.
Now, the Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC) is pushing for district council elections to be restored, though many agencies including Parliament are opposed.
“To me, Bangkok district councilors are still needed,” BMC chairman Wirat Minchainant said.
Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt agrees, arguing that even though Bangkokians now have city councilors again, district councilors are still required to take care of locals at a deeper level.
“We need to review the plan to terminate Bangkok district councilors,” he said.
What are Bangkok district councilors?
Unlike all other provinces, Bangkok does not have village heads and kamnans. Instead, it has traditionally had city councilors and district councilors to take care of locals.
While Bangkok councilors focus on their legislative roles at BMC, Bangkok district councilors gather information at the local level and provide feedback to BMC and district offices so they can improve public services and solve residents’ problems.
Each district should have at least seven district councilors, according to the Bangkok Administration Act BE 2528 (1985). However, for districts with more than 100,000 residents, the number of district councilors rises by 1 for every additional 100,000 residents – with an excess above 50,000 rounded up to 100,000.
District councilors are paid 11,990 baht per month, while the chair of a district council receives 16,180 per month.
Bangkok district councilors have a duty to provide advice, propose district development plans, and scrutinize budget spending and district offices’ works.
Why did they disappear?
The last Bangkok district councilor election was held in 2010. Elected candidates carried out their duties until 2014 when they were ousted from office by the military coup and junta.
Following the coup, local elections had been suspended for many years. The junta’s National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) also ruled that Bangkok district councilors were not necessary. Bangkok district councilors thus disappeared from the scene.
Recently, the House committee on decentralization, local administration, and special administration supported the permanent termination of Bangkok district councils.
Reasons for termination
The NRSA argued that Bangkokians could lodge complaints about problems in their district via various channels, meaning district councilors were not really needed.
The Budget Bureau, meanwhile, commented that district offices already had to report to the Bangkok governor and BMA permanent secretary, while their work was also scrutinized by Bangkok councilors, meaning councilors’ checking role was redundant.
The Budget Bureau added that Bangkok district councils had the power to allocate budget to district offices, a role that was at odds with their status as a check-and-balance mechanism.
“A body that has the power to approve something should not get involved in the investigation of that thing,” it said.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), meanwhile, agrees with the move to eradicate district councilors.
The BMA, which functions as the Thai capital’s government, argues that district councilors are not genuine representatives of Bangkok constituents, citing the low voter turnouts in their elections. Though it takes a huge amount of money to organize these elections, turnout only ranges between 30 and 35 percent of eligible voters.
Most Bangkok district councilors, moreover, are affiliated with political parties. They, therefore, are prone to focusing on works related to their parties’ policies.
“Hence, the termination of Bangkok district councils will not run against decentralization,” BMA concluded.
Support for Bangkok district councilors
However, after Bangkok councilor and Bangkok governor elections were held in May, calls for Bangkok district council votes are growing.
Wirat, who is himself a former Bangkok district councilor, said the city had already made do without kamnans and village heads. Bangkokians should not have to give up Bangkok district councilors too, given that elected local leaders could deliver many benefits, he said.
“Each Bangkok district is big. Min Buri district, for example, has 150,000 residents. The Bangkok city councilor here will struggle if he/she has to tend to every need of locals while also handling legislative duties and sitting on BMC subcommittees,” Wirat said. “Today, city councilors do not have assistants either. So, if there were Bangkok district councilors in place, locals would have a greater chance of getting attention when they have something to say or need some help.”
A community leader in Bangkok’s Klong Sam Wa district said it was easier to air grievances and receive help from authorities when the message was relayed via Bangkok district councilors.
“When we ask for fumigation to eradicate mosquitos, fire extinguishers, and garbage collection, we receive faster responses via elected leaders,” he said, on the condition his name was withheld.
The community leader said he feels more comfortable talking to Bangkok district councilors than to other authorities, as the councilors are more approachable.
“Former Bangkok district councilors also live in my neighborhood. It is easier to depend on your neighbor or a local,” he commented.
Are they necessary?
Dr. Stithorn Thananithichot, director of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said that while Bangkok district councilors offered benefits, they might not be needed.
“If the Bangkok governor’s team is very open and directly engages the public, Bangkok district councilors may be unnecessary,” he said.
However, he added that if Bangkok executives were overly bureaucratic, district councilors would definitely be necessary.
Unlike district councilors, Bangkok councilors are based at BMC – not in local areas. Stithorn believes Bangkok councilors would be even more useful if they hailed from various professional fields.
An expert’s recommendation
He said if Bangkok district council elections are finally restored, voters should be required to cast their vote just for one candidate – not many candidates as in the past.
“If we use the old rules, it is likely that representatives of political parties will get the post,” he said.
Asked if the powers and duties of Bangkok district councilors should be changed, Stithorn said, “I think the current law just needs to elaborate more on their duties, so their role is clear, tangible, and purposeful. Also, the law should prescribe a clear process for what must be done after Bangkok district councilors make a recommendation.”
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk