11 July 2024

For the first time in 12 years, Bangkokians will vote for a new city council, at an election expected in May. While this local election may be overshadowed by the upcoming Bangkok governor vote, it is receiving serious attention from big political parties.

The Democrat, Pheu Thai, Move Forward, Kla, and the Thai Sang Thai Party, for example, have already named candidates for the race even before the polling day is officially set. And these candidates are already busy hitting the campaign trail.

In the coming election, 50 Bangkok councilors will be elected, one for each of the capital’s 50 districts.

What does Bangkok council do?

Bangkok councilors are members of the Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC), which functions as the capital’s legislature or law-making assembly. Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is the city’s executive or government. In other words, the BMC and BMA are Bangkok’s version of the House of Representatives and the national government, respectively.

During their four-year tenure, councilors each receive a salary and allowances of Bt48,450 per month. That income will be higher if they are appointed as BMC chair or vice-chair. The BMC chair is paid Bt73,560 a month, while a vice-chair receives Bt61,140.

Bangkok councilors have three core duties: to propose, review and approve BMA regulations; to consider and approve the BMA Budget Bill; and to check and scrutinize BMA executives through measures including debates and raising questions.

In all, BMC councilors play a crucial role in shaping the direction of the capital’s development alongside the city’s governor.

BMC, for example, has a big say in the BMA’s huge annual budget. The budget for the fiscal year 2022, which began last October, is Bt79.85 billion.

What role do councilors play?

Dr Stithorn Thananithichot, director of Innovation for Democracy under the King Prajadhipok Institute, said that in theory, Bangkok councilors serve as the check-and-balance mechanism in Bangkok’s administration.

“In practice, most of the time they support the Bangkok governor,” he commented. From his observations, many city residents even consider councilors to be members of the Bangkok governor’s team.

Stithorn says the work of Bangkok governors and councilors is usually aligned because most hail from the same political party.

However, this could change.

“I think Bangkok councilors’ work style will be different if candidates present themselves as a team that will keep the Bangkok governor in check,” he said.

He added that in 2012, when then-Bangkok governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra extended BTSC’s Bt178-billion contract to operate the Green Line by 30 years till 2042, BMC did not even raise a question despite huge public criticism of the move.

The last Bangkok councilor election took place in August 2010. In 2014, the city vote was suspended – along with all other elections – by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which was installed after the coup. The incumbent Bangkok councilors were instead appointed by NCPO coup-makers.

However, earlier this month the Cabinet approved plans to hold local elections in Bangkok and Pattaya – both of which are special administrative zones. If the plans go ahead, the Election Commission will likely conduct the elections for Bangkok governor and city councilors simultaneously on either May 22 or May 29.

Checks-and-balance or rubber stamp?

While their scrutiny of the Bangkok governor is rarely intense, there have been occasions when Bangkok councilors have thwarted the city governor’s plans. Pheu Thai member Vicharn Minchainant, a former BMC chair, said that during his tenure on the city council, he put the brakes on a plan to build 12 steel bridges for the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok.

The Bangkok governor at that time was Krisda Arunvongse Na Ayudhya, who was backed by the Palang Dharma Party. Vicharn, however, was a Democrat Party member in those days.

“Even though the Democrats had just seven Bangkok councilors back then, we managed to convince councilors from the Palang Dharma Party to come over to our side,” Vicharn said, recounting an example of how the BMC can veto the plans of Bangkok governors.

He also pointed out that, by law, BMC could even overthrow the Bangkok governor if it could gather the support of at least three-quarters of city councilors.

But so far, at no time in the long history of the capital has a Bangkok governor ever been ousted by the city’s council.

Governor candidates’ view on councilors

Democrat Party gubernatorial candidate Prof Dr Suchatvee Suwansawat apparently considers city councilors to be part of the Bangkok governor’s team.

“I am glad that the Democrat Party’s Bangkok-councilor candidates are strong and actively reaching out to local people. Thanks to this teamwork, we know what problems local people are experiencing,” Suchatvee said. The would-be governor is currently waging his campaign alongside his party’s candidates for city councilors.

Move Forward’s gubernatorial candidate Wiroj Lakkhanadisorn is also busy wooing votes accompanied on the campaign trail by his party’s candidates for councilor posts.

Chatchart Sitthiphan, who will contest the Bangkok-governor election as an independent, said about 10,000 volunteers – who refer to themselves as Chatchart’s friends – had helped him canvass for votes and address Bangkok residents’ concerns. But none of these campaign workers would run for a post at the council, he added.

“My team and I see eye to eye on this – there is no need [for us] to field candidates for the Bangkok-councilor election. Whoever the voters elect as councilors, if I am voted in as Bangkok governor, I will work with them all,” Chatchart said.

Ex-BMC chair Vicharn believes that stance will not put Chatchart at a disadvantage, explaining that it would enable him to align with members of any political party if he is elected governor.

Any influence on national politics?

King Prajadhipok Institute’s Stithorn said Bangkok councilors can help their respective political parties win votes at the national level. As evidence, he cited the 2019 general election, where no Democrat candidate won an MP seat in Bangkok, while 12 candidates from Palang Pracharath Party were elected.

“This happened despite the fact that many of the Democrat candidates were former MPs. But if we look deeper, we find that many of the successful Palang Pracharath candidates were directly linked to Bangkok councilors or their family members,” he said.

Vicharn said the number of Bangkok-councilor seats won by a political party more or less reflected its popularity in the capital.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk