Can PPRP avoid a bruising in city poll?

Can PPRP avoid a bruising in city poll?

Clockwise from top left: Rosana Tositrakul, former Bangkok senator, Chadchart Sittipunt, former Pheu Thai transport minister, incumbent Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, and Suchatvee Suwansawat, ex-rector of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang.
Clockwise from top left: Rosana Tositrakul, former Bangkok senator, Chadchart Sittipunt, former Pheu Thai transport minister, incumbent Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, and Suchatvee Suwansawat, ex-rector of King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang.

As the Bangkok governor election is drawing near, major political parties such as the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) and Pheu Thai coincidentally find themselves in a peculiar condition, with deliberate ambiguity apparently the best poll strategy.

In recent months, a few big-name personalities have introduced themselves to Bangkok voters as they announced their intention to run. They include Chadchart Sittipunt, a transport minister under the former Yingluck Shinawatra administration; Rosana Tositrakul, a civic group leader and former elected senator; and Suchatvee Suwansawat, ex-rector of King Mongkut's Institute of Technology, Ladkrabang. Of the three, only Mr Suchatvee is offfcially affiliated to a political party -- the Democrat Party.

Despite being wooed by Pheu Thai, Mr Chadchart initially declared he would run as an independent candidate. The opposition party then resolved to say it would not field a candidate. Yet it's widely known that Pheu Thai is using all of its available mechanisms, city councillors and district councillors to support the former transport minister, albeit discreetly.

The ruling PPRP still faces a dilemma as it cannot find the right candidate for what is expected to be a tough battle in the poll, likely to take place in the middle of next year. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon eventually said the party may not field a candidate at all. He made the remarks after Narongsak Osottanakorn, currently Pathum Thani governor, refused to be courted by the PPRP, citing a technicality that could disqualify him as well as his desire to spend more quality time with his family.

It's believed the PPRP will go back to incumbent governor Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, who was hand-picked by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha to replace MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra in 2015.

Pol Gen Aswin has yet to officially announce his candidacy, but the fact that he refused to step aside as requested by then-PPRP hopeful Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda -- the former chief of the Royal Thai Police, who had made clear his wish to run for governor -- suggests he is loathe to leave city hall. Pol Gen Chakthip then withdrew from the race.

The Move Forward Party, meanwhile, said it will join the contest. The party, a reincarnated version of the Future Forward Party, which emerged as runner-up in the 2019 national election, plans to introduce its candidate early next year.

It's interesting that these two major parties are acting so evasively ahead of the forthcoming poll, considered one of the most important contests given Bangkok's status as the heart of the country's administrative system.

Such reluctance to show their respective hands may have something to do with political timelines. If the gubernatorial poll takes place in the middle of next year, it would probably only be separated from the national election by a few months, as the latter is expected in early 2023 pending any unforeseen "missteps".

Bangkok voters are notoriously hard to predict, but election history shows that many vote strategically, picking strong candidates to block others they despise rather than voting for their personal favourites.

As such, the PPRP and Pheu Thai now share the same fears, which seem warranted. Should either lose in the gubernatorial poll, there could be a "domino effect" in the ensuing national poll. It's therefore logical they would both want to play it safe.

As a new party, the PPRP was the biggest poll winner in the 2019 election, sweeping 12 out of 30 seats in in the capital, followed by the then-FFP, which won 10 seats, and Pheu Thai, which pocketed eight. The Democrat Party was the biggest loser, failing to maintain a political stronghold.

As for the 2023 national polls, Pheu Thai is slated to be a top winner but somehow the opposition leader chooses to keep a low profile in the Bangkok race. This is because the party has learned that any affiliation with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra would cost the party its political fortune, like what happened in all four Bangkok elections since 2004, when it was beaten time and again by the Democrat Party.

In 2004, the party, known then as Thai Rak Thai, didn't field a candidate but provided support to Pavena Hongsakula who lost to Apirak Kosayothin, a political novice, at 911,441: 619,039 or 38% to 25%.

In 2008, Mr Apirak, who ran for a second term, beat Prapat Chongsanguan, the former MRTA governor, who ran under the then-People Power Party (a reincarnation of the TRT).

Mr Apirak's decision to prematurely end his term after being implicated in a graft case (of which he was later cleared) paved the way for a new election the following year, which saw actor-turned-politician Yuranunt Pamornmontri run under the Pheu Thai banner. He lost to MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party, who retained the title when he beat Pol Gen Pongspat Pongcharoen, the Pheu Thai candidate in 2013.

It's a bitter lesson for the Thaksin-affiliated party. The chronic losses have something to do with Bangkokians' strategic voting as many wanted to have the Democrat Party, then the opposition, in local politics, to maintain a balance with the powerful Pheu Thai, which, given its landslide win, was often criticised as being akin to a parliamentary dictatorship.

Now the situation may change in the Pheu Thai's favour. Without any clear link with Mr Chadchart, it has nothing to lose if the former minister cannot win the Bangkok poll. But it would be a windfall if Mr Chadchart were to succeed. Now the Democrat Party is in the doldrums, Mr Suchatvee has little chance.

For the PPRP, this is an embarrassment. As the ruling party, it feels it cannot afford to lose the Bangkok poll. For psychological reasons, any prospective loss in the capital would be interpreted as Bangkokians' disapproval of Gen Prayut and his government.

Not being able to attract any candidate for such a crucial race attests to the fact that the party is on a downhill slope. Not to mention that by the time the gubernatorial election takes place next year, things will be even more complicated for the prime minister, who is facing two political time bombs.

One is a no-confidence session and the other is the dilemma regarding his eight-year tenure, which is limited by the 2017 charter that imposed curbs to prevent any one figure dominating politics.

Though Gen Prayut's supporters insist the countdown should begin after the 2019 poll, meaning he could stay on until 2023, his legitimacy will be challenged like never before.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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