Pheu Thai seeks to end Dems' domination

Pheu Thai seeks to end Dems' domination

The Democrat Party has already announced it will field MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the current Bangkok governor, to contest the upcoming Bangkok gubernatorial election battle on Feb 17.

Although the Pheu Thai Party has not announced its candidate yet, it is no secret that Pheu Thai will use the same old strategy it has resorted to before _ field no one under the Pheu Thai banner but give unofficial party support to an independent candidate, someone like Pol Gen Pongsapat Pongcharoen, deputy national police chief and secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB).

The Democrat Party has dominated Bangkok gubernatorial elections since 2004, with Apirak Kosayothin winning two consecutive terms followed by MR Sukhumbhand Paripatra. Pheu Thai's (and its predecessors') favoured candidates have come second every time.

In Bangkok, the Democrats command about 900,000 votes while Pheu Thai can muster only 600,000.

The chances of a Pheu Thai win then depends on who its candidate is. Pol Gen Pongsapat knows that to win, he must get Pheu Thai's 600,000 votes plus from his own support base, which he believes can exceed 300,000.

Pol Gen Pongsapat is a PR master who was dubbed "Judi Event" by reporters _ Judi is his nickname, and "event" derives from his publicity-seeking style.

The ONCB chief has a tendency to dramatise the cases he oversees and turn them into media events. It is worth watching how he will use his expertise to try to win the 2013 gubernatorial race.

For Bangkok governor elections, the candidates from the two largest political parties always have the highest chances of winning. But there have been exceptions to the rule.

Independent candidates who are household names can also beat candidates from the big parties. This happened with Chamlong Srimuang, Bhichit Rattakul and Samak Sundaravej.

Independent candidates who lack the above group's pedigree are considered merely "decorative plants". Of these candidates, only Chuvit Kamolvisit, who has lost a governor election and eventually succeeded in becoming an MP, has the potential to be a political star.

The only independent candidate who could fit the bill in this year's race is Pol Gen Seripisut Temiyavet, the former national police chief. Whether he can command more or fewer votes than Pol Gen Pongsapat will be keenly followed.

MR Sukhumbhand has made it known for many months that he would run for a second term. His party, however, stayed silent for four months. Members of the party's candidate screening committee included Chalermchai Sri-on, the Democrat secretary-general, and Korn Chatikavanij, deputy party leader for the Bangkok region. The committee listened to the visions of aspiring candidates from both inside and outside the party.

Four candidates made the shortlist _ MR Sukhumbhand; Korbsak Sabhavasu, former deputy prime minister; Prakob Chirakiti, party list MP and former deputy Bangkok governor; and Apichai Taechaubol, a former assistant minister.

Towards the end of the screening process, the name of Korn Chatikavanij himself started to surface as a potential candidate. Before he joined the screening committee, Mr Korn was asked by several party executives to run. They view him as the most appropriate choice due to his image as a successful business executive and his well-regarded performance as finance minister. He is young, full of energy and initiative, presenting a "fresh" image that could convince voters he can bring positive changes to Bangkok.

He initially said no, preferring to build his political career nationally. This is understandable. At a time when party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is facing many lawsuits from the government, presenting the possibility of a change in party leadership, there is a chance Mr Korn will be chosen to become the future party leader. This was why Mr Korn consistently declined the requests.

Before the final decision was made, however, the executive committee's meeting insisted on proposing Mr Korn as another candidate. Mr Chalermchai is a strong supporter, and he wants someone else from the Democrat Party to replace MR Sukhumbhand.

He reportedly asked Mr Korn not to say no if his name was proposed as a candidate. But when the voting was finally held to choose a candidate, MR Sukhumbhand beat Mr Korn by a 9-4 margin, out of 19 votes cast by executive committee members. Mr Abhisit abstained from voting.

The reason Mr Korn was defeated was not because the Democrat executive committee was not confident in him, but because his supporters made a mistake in allowing him to hesitate for more than three months. He therefore did not follow party procedures by announcing his intention to run and of presenting his policy vision. Proposing his candidacy at executive committee meeting level bypassed party rules and was also unfair to other candidates.

Mr Korn's supporters also underestimated MR Sukhumbhand. They thought the governor did not really have a smooth relationship with the party's executives, so would not be able to get enough support from party executives.

They did not know that MR Sukhumbhand has been organising various activities to strengthen ties with all Bangkok MPs from the Democrats and also with other city and district councillors.

More than 80% of them are closer to MR Sukhumbhand than Mr Korn, even though Mr Korn is the deputy party leader overseeing Bangkok.Mr Korn himself knew he did not have as much support from the Bangkok MPs as party leader Mr Abhisit, who is well-liked by all Democrat MPs. But since the majority in the party believe Mr Korn has great potential, and since his popularity with the public far exceeds that of the other four candidates, he believed that his candidacy would ease the party's difficulties in the election.

The Democrat Party as a whole, however, believes the party's democratic process must be upheld. That it is more important than the voices of the Bangkok residents who are not happy with MR Sukhumbhand's performance, especially during the 2011 floods as well as with his failure to finish the Bangkok Futsal Arena in time for the Futsal World Cup last year.

Still, the Democrats elected MR Sukhumbhand as a candidate to avoid conflicts within the party. Had it not fielded the incumbent, they would be unable to explain why Mr Korn never officially announced his intention to run.

The Democrat Party may be able to win again. Or maybe not. The Pheu Thai Party is in a strong position right now to end its rival's grip on the Bangkok governor post. It has power over all key positions in every ministry and department. It is more than ready financially.

One thing is for certain. The Pheu Thai Party will use all its resources to win this gubernatorial election. This means the Democrats must work hard to help MR Sukhumbhand regain the lost trust of Bangkok's residents.

Nattaya Chetchotiros is Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Nattaya Chetchotiros

Assistant News Editor

Nattaya Chetchotiros is Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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