Capital poll portends Thailand's rule

Capital poll portends Thailand's rule

City Hall kicks off a campaign on May 9 to encourage voters to turn out for the elections for Bangkok governor and city councillors this Sunday. The Bangkok electorate has not had a vote for the capital's governor in nearly a decade. (Photo: Arnun Chonmahatrakool)
City Hall kicks off a campaign on May 9 to encourage voters to turn out for the elections for Bangkok governor and city councillors this Sunday. The Bangkok electorate has not had a vote for the capital's governor in nearly a decade. (Photo: Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

Never has Bangkok's gubernatorial contest been so much about Thailand. The poll this Sunday is not just about how Bangkok will be run but how Thailand will be ruled. Beyond the usual grievances and issues that traditionally hang over Bangkokians' lives and livelihoods are larger forces at work. Whoever comes out on top will have much to say about the bigger national election that has to be held by this time next year.

As the Bangkok electorate has not had a vote for the capital's governor in nearly a decade, the poll this Sunday is highly anticipated. The air is full of excitement as contenders put up billboards and engage in televised debates, offering various programmes and policies. What is most notable, compared to the last national poll in March 2019, is that the poll-regulating agencies, particularly the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court, do not seem to be assertive as the stakes for Bangkok's governorship are smaller.

No political party dissolution or bans on candidates appear in store this time. On current trends, the vote this Sunday looks set to be free and fair, although the role of these poll regulators in shaping final outcomes can never be ruled out. Another notable trend is that voting is correlated with civilian leadership and that military generals have taken a hands-off approach so far. Getting civil-military relations right is the most daunting challenge of Thailand's political system. Having a vote, getting the electorate involved and focusing on civilian candidates are a recipe to build on to keep the top brass out of power.

Another new trend to welcome is digital and social media platforms. The traditional media, both print and television, have been disappointing as they have fallen behind the curve of truth and reality, avoiding hard issues and tough investigative questions. In their place are new media outlets, such as The Standard, which held the fairest and most dynamic debate among governor candidates during the last campaign stretch. The emergence of these new interfaces among social, digital and online media is a boon to the political environment.

For the cut and thrust, what is conspicuous in this Bangkok contest is that the field of candidates mirrors national politics, spread out across the political spectrum and divided roughly into pro-establishment conservatives and anti-coup progressives. Candidates within each camp vary in the degree of where they stand in relation to the role of established centres of power, particularly the military and the monarchy. Progressives want reform, whereas conservatives more or less favour the status quo.

Such is the fundamental difference between this Bangkok governor election and its antecedents. Campaign issues this time run the usual gamut, including schooling under the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, childcare, public buses, road and sidewalk conditions, air quality, flooding, access for the handicapped, bureaucratic inefficiencies and corruption, and so forth. Yet the big topics that have captivated voter attention have included motorcades, street protests, and the response to another military coup.

Among the 30 candidates, a clutch of four conservative and three progressive candidates have stood out. First and foremost is the incumbent, Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, who was appointed to the governorship in October 2016 by the military junta that seized power in May 2014, replacing his elected predecessor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra. At that time, the National Council for Peace and Order, had a decree known as Article 44 at its disposal, allowing dictatorial and unaccountable power.

Even though he has resigned to run as an independent, it is clear that Mr Aswin is a coup legacy with military support. If he wins, then the military and coup-makers among them should be applauded for picking the right candidate to get re-elected. Another coup-related candidate is Sakoltee Phattiyakul, who was a leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee that staged street protests that crippled Bangkok for months from October 2013, paving the way for the coup. If he comes out on top, it will mean that what the PDRC and what its royalist-conservative and pro-coup stand retains strong support in the capital.

Also worthy of mention among conservative candidates is Rosana Tositrakul, who was instrumental in an earlier yellow-clad movement that laid the groundwork for the September 2006 coup. If she ends up with a sizeable showing, it will signal that the Bangkok electorate is still concerned about the corruption of the early 2000s under the Thaksin Shinawatra administration. Similarly, Suchatvee Suwansawat of the Democrat Party is not expected to win but how many votes he earns will reflect how voters view his party and its performance in recent years. These four candidates on the right of centre are generally anti-Thaksin but not anti-coup, pro-status quo and less inclined towards fundamental structural reforms.

Left of centre are Chadchart Sittipunt, Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn and Sita Divari. As with the four conservative candidates, these three are engaged in voter cannibalisation among their overlapping support bases. From a defected faction of the Pheu Thai party associated with Thaksin, Mr Sita is unlikely to win outright but his numbers will have something to say about Pheu Thai, whether a faction that bolts to form a new party can do well electorally.

More notable are Mr Chadchart and Mr Wiroj who are vying for the same liberal-progressive voter bases in Bangkok. As transport minister under the Yingluck Shinawatra government prior to the 2014 coup, Mr Chadchart threw his hat in the ring more than two years ago long before the poll was announced, working on livelihood projects in low-income neighbourhoods. His platform is all about running Bangkok more efficiently and smartly, tackling corruption and red tape while offering better ways to live in the urban metropolis.

From the Move Forward Party, Mr Wiroj is campaigning for the Bangkok governorship from a national platform of rule of law, equality and social justice. The difference between them came down to one question in The Standard's widely viewed debate. If there is a coup, Mr Wiroj declared that he would lead a people's protest movement against it. When it comes to the public inconvenience of road blocks, Mr Wiroj was not afraid to mention royal motorcades that required better traffic coordination by the police.

If Mr Wiroj surges ahead of the rest, especially by a convincing margin, it will mean a very different kind of Bangkokians has emerged in preference for fundamental structural reforms of traditional institutions. If Mr Chadchart comes out ahead, it will suggest that change and reform at the national level might have to come more gradually, and that Bangkok will see a facelift and upgrade in how it operates.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY

A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.


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