TAO polls offer hope for underdogs
Last Sunday, more than 27.3 million or 74.5% of eligible voters turned up in force at polling booths to exercise their right to vote, choosing chairs and members of tambon administrative organisations (TAOs).
The election was the first in more than seven years for the tambon-level form of administration due to delays put in place by the Prayut Chan-o-cha government.
The high voter turnout is historic as it surpassed that of the provincial administrative organisation (PAO) polls last December, which saw 62% of voters have their say.
Despite the high turnout, however, voting patterns didn't change much this time. In several constituencies, a number of old faces managed to make a comeback. There were also quite a few newcomers, mostly young and energetic politicians, who were able to beat the incumbents.
Having grabbed 4,500 seats, the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) was the big winner in the Nov 28 polls, while the Progressive Movement (PM) under the leadership of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit fielded 196 candidates but only secured 38 seats. The number may look small, but it was still hailed as a victory by the group given that it fared much worse at the PAO polls a year earlier.
Nonetheless, the current scenario is strikingly different from the 2019 national elections, when the now-dissolved Future Forward Party -- seen as a precursor of the PM -- won a much larger slice of the election cake.
To a certain extent, the PM's performance shows that political conflicts at a national level have considerably less impact on voters in rural areas, and that connections with the major parties, canvassers, and influential figures are still what matters most. Local politicians struggle to stay truly independent as they need strong links with, or support from, big-name politicians or major parties to emerge as poll winners.
The PM has long championed reform and political change as well as the abolition of the old powers in what is known as paa lom muang (this literally describes the expanding jungle around a city, but in this sense means winning enough votes in peripheral areas to gain political momentum at the core). As such, the group will have to work harder to deepen its roots in local areas and achieve its goals.
Some academics have observed that the Nov 28 polls were a fierce battle given the changed voting system that saw the number of TAO seats cut by half. In their opinion, the fact that some newcomers were able to squeeze in and overpower the old faces is a healthy sign that the traditional "client and patron" system in provinces like Nakhon Pathom and Chon Buri, dominated by certain big names, could one day be uprooted. It's a new phenomenon that shows people are ready for change, should a better choice become available.
Pannika Wanich, a core leader of the PM, said the group's popularity in the 2019 poll failed to make a difference this time. It had high hopes of grabbing more seats as it had proposed a number of development policies for local agencies that frequently interact with their constituents. But in the end, voters mostly defaulted to their favourite choices from powerful and famous families.
Ms Pannika said the pandemic actually benefited the PM as many young voters who lost their city jobs returned home to the provinces and voted in favour of the group.
It's these young people who gave weight to policies, not personal connections with the candidates, that supported the PM's candidates.
All in all, the higher level of political awareness after the ban on local politics put in place by the military regime after the 2014 coup is good for democracy. Every election since the ban was eased has seen a big voter turnout.
Of course, elections are still tainted with the same old problems of vote-buying and nepotism, but rising public awareness and more public participation can help to ensure greater transparency, while colour-coded conflicts are no longer such a big issue.
The next elections are for Bangkok and Pattaya, which both rank as special local administrative organisations. Bangkok's last gubernatorial election was eight years ago in 2013. The Bangkok governor election, which is almost impossible to separate from national politics, will be aggressively contested. A number of candidates, both independents and those representing political parties, have introduced themselves.
The Democrat Party, a coalition partner, has pressured the government to hold the election by January. Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, the regime's choice after it ditched MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, has run the city for more than five years, while city councillors, also named by the regime, have been in office for more than seven years.
Even if the Prayut government tries to delay the Bangkok governor election, it will have to be held no later than mid-2022. Gen Prayut has made it clear he wants to stay on to host Apec from the end of this year, while the government's term will be completed in March 2023. If everything stays on track, the national elections will take place in May of that year.
With regard to ongoing conflicts, and with several contentious issues at stake, both elections are set to be extremely fierce as forces from different ends of the political spectrum do battle while eligible voters are eager to make a difference in hope of change.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.