11 July 2024

The trick is that the independent Bangkok gubernatorial candidate must stay away from national politics if he wants to lead all the way to the finish line. However, that is a big ask for two main reasons: He used to serve under a Pheu Thai government, and national politics has a funny way of drawing anyone into it, no matter the amount of kicking and screaming.

The latest NIDA Poll shows Chadchart Sittipunt remains in a comfortable lead, and the Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties are nowhere in sight. Yet his biggest threat is the number of “undecided voters”, who accounted for almost 28 percent of 1,318 people surveyed.

The undecided voters are the second biggest group, trailing the nearly 30 percent who told the pollsters they would cast their ballots for Chadchart. Coming in third in the survey is former police chief ChakthipChaijinda. Like Pheu Thai and Move Forward, Chakthip actually saw his support declining in the latest opinion poll.

In recent memory, Bangkok’s gubernatorial elections reflect the trends of national politics. The biggest telltale result is probably the return of much-maligned incumbent Sukhumbhand Paribatra in 2013.  In that election, all opinion polls pointed toward a landslide victory of his number-one opponent, Pongsapat Pongcharoen, but anti-Thaksin sentiment drummed up by the Democrats less than a week before the voting day produced one of Thai politics’ biggest shocks. Sukhumbhand scored a resounding triumph, accumulating the largest number of votes seen in the city gubernatorial history.

What is the mood now? All Chadchart has to do is check out the latest NIDA poll. Combining the percentages of his support and the “undecided” portion and he will be nearly 58%. Even if supports for Pheu Thai, Move Forward, Democrat and PalangPracharat are put together, it’s significantly less than 10%. The message as indicated by NIDA Poll is clear: Voters want an independent candidate, not someone affiliated with any party.

In fact, opinion polls have confirmed that Chadchart’s decision not to compete under the PheuThai banner was the right one. He never said it out loud, but what influenced the breakup had “Pongsapat” written all over it. National politics can make or break a Bangkok gubernatorial candidate, but if you are already popular, and massively so, why risk it?

Chadchart was deemed the best Cabinet member in the Yingluck government. He was even tipped to be a prime ministerial candidate, so his decision to leave Pheu Thai was quite peculiar. One theory had it that the party’s “approval” system does not favor popular “outsiders” that much. Another said Chadchart had his focus firmly on the Bangkok governor post and he simply believed that connections with national politics would do more harm than good. Or it may be both theories combined.

Political parties have seen the current opinion polls but comforted themselves by saying that the race is a marathon, not a sprint. Only the Democrat Party has announced a clear-cut intention to compete, claiming that projections would change drastically when the public see who represents it, whose name is a “Wow!” Pheu Thai, until recently, was desperate to win Chadchart back and has shown reluctance to compete against him, while Move Forward has yet to announce a candidate.

Apparently, the Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties are being engaged in some kind of a staring contest. “Face” is terribly important here, as losing in Bangkok is a big deal. In the last general election over two years ago, the Future Forward Party (now the Move Forward Party) won 804,272 votes in Bangkok, followed by Palang Pracharath (791,893 votes) and Pheu Thai (604,699 votes).

Things have changed a lot since then. PalangPracharath has been rocked by infighting and plunging popularity, but Move Forward has also lost a few key elections, unexpectedly and by big margins. Pheu Thai has lost Sudarat Keyuraphan in addition to Chadchart and its future remains tied solidly with the Shinawatras.

Chadchart, 55, will have to make do with turning his lack of political experience into a big asset in the city gubernatorial race. He will have to tell voters: “See? My non-political background is impressive, and so is my brief stint in national politics.” He was an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering, and also served as the university’s assistant rector. In 2012, he joined the Pheu Thai-led government at the invitation of then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra – first as deputy transport minister and later as transport minister.

He used to serve as an adviser on transport matters in the Thaksin and Samak governments before becoming a Cabinet member. His ties with Pheu Thai were considered strong, probably too strong for his liking.

National politics also approached him from “the other side”. After the coup in 2014, Chadchart sat in a committee that included representatives from conflicting parties, as part of a reconciliation effort brokered by the Internal Security Operations Command. In September 2017, he was appointed by the junta to the government’s national strategy committee on the country’s competitiveness, but he quit shortly afterward.

Remaining strictly in the middle has been and will always be difficult. Politicization of basically everything can intensify in the next few months and it can swallow up the Bangkok gubernatorial election, which may be scheduled before the year ends. Chadchart will find out that he can run (as an independent), but he cannot hide (from national politics).

By Tulsathit Taptim