What’s at stake in Thailand’s nationwide local elections on Sunday

The first nationwide elections of all 5,300 sub-district administrative organizations (SAO) since the 2014 military coup take place this Sunday (Nov 28).

This will be the first election in eight to 10 years for many SAOs, with their last vote held at least a year before the coup.

The post-coup junta suspended all political activity, meaning elected chief executives of local administrations remained in their posts long after their four-year terms ended.

Sunday will see the third nationwide election of local administrative organizations since the junta’s ban on politics was lifted.

The first came last December, when chief executives and members of provincial administrative organizations (PAO) were elected in all provinces, except Bangkok. Then, March saw elections of 2,472 municipal councils across the country.

No impacts on general election

The small size of SAO constituencies means these polls are not viewed as a guide for the next general election.

Unlike the votes for Bangkok governor or PAOs, which cover much larger electorates, the SAO poll won’t indicate or correlate with the national election result, says political analyst Yuthaporn Issarachai from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.

“Winning the SAO election does not mean you will win the general election, because the scale [of SAO elections] is very small, with each village serving as a constituency,” said the analyst.

As such, candidates contesting for SAO seats must rely on their close ties with local voters rather than support from political parties.

However, many incumbent SAO chiefs and members are also canvassers for political parties, so they get backing from these parties — formally or informally — as they campaign for another term.

While some parties and political groups openly field candidates, others provide support behind the scenes to avoid potential legal problems.

Many candidates are close to national politicians from coalition or opposition parties, reportedly enjoying their covert support.

Political officeholders including MPs, senators and other government appointees are banned from campaigning for or obstructing any local election candidate, as per the 2019 Election for Local Councils or Local Management Act.

Chances for underdogs and newcomers

Progressive Movement, the extra-parliamentary successor to the disbanded Future Forward Party, is campaigning fiercely for the SAO elections – just as it did ahead of the PAO and municipal council elections.

However, the ally of the opposition Move Forward Party has performed disappointingly in local elections so far.

Last December, it contested for PAO chief executive posts in 42 provinces but failed to win a single seat. It also fielded 1,001 candidates for PAO member seats but only won 57. The group fared slightly better in municipal council elections, winning about 10 per cent of the seats it contested.

The Progressive Movement is fielding 210 teams of candidates in Sunday’s election.

A total of 136,250 candidates are registered for Sunday’s polls — 12,309 candidates for SAO chief executive posts and the remaining 123,941for SAO members, according to the Election Commission (EC).

Each of the 5,300 SAOs has one chief executive and six other members.

Considered a legal entity, the SAO is the smallest local administrative organization, closely serving local residents – particularly those in rural, less developed parts of the country. Their main duties are to deal with local issues and offer public services to villages under their jurisdiction.

Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, reckons that Progressive Movement’s chances of success in the upcoming election are no higher than in the previous ones. He noted that the group contested only about 10 per cent of municipal council seats and won only 10 per cent of those seats. He added that an interesting feature of Sunday’s election is that many candidates have placed their hopes on winning young voters, and thus decided to run under the Progressive Movement banner.

The group is viewed as popular among youngsters, who are often reluctant to vote at local elections.

These candidates “want to take advantage of Progressive Movement’s popularity, and it’s not easy to buy votes from young voters”, said Stithorn.

The new-face candidates could find it tough to beat veteran politicians who enjoy strong ties with local voters, but many observers insist the newcomers have an equal chance of success.

While seasoned candidates may have a support base and close ties with voters, many of the new players come from political families or influential local dynasties with strong connections in villages, said Yuthaporn.

“Newcomers who don’t have any connection with the electorate won’t dare to run [in the election], as they would have only a slim chance of winning,” he said.

Vote-buying still an issue

As with other Thai elections, Sunday’s polls are vulnerable to vote-buying, particularly in constituencies where contests are close.

Local election officials are paying close attention to allegations that candidates or their canvassers have offered money in exchange for votes.

Niyom Chanyiam, director of the EC’s Uttaradit office, said that competition for votes had intensified in the week before the vote. Election inspectors have been dispatched to closely fought-over tambons (sub-districts) in search of evidence of vote-buying, he added.

The EC had received about 120 complaints of electoral offences in the run-up to Sunday’s polls, the agency’s secretary-general Jarungwith Phumma said on Tuesday (Nov 23). He added that his agency was working with the police to tackle election-related crimes.

Meanwhile, University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce estimated that between Bt20 billion and Bt30 billion would change hands during the SAO election campaigning, which it described as an extra factor to boost the economy in the last quarter of the year. The university omitted to mention whether the estimate included money spent on vote-buying.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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