Local politics heating up
Big hitters jockeying for position ahead of 2020 local poll campaigns
The political calendar for 2020 is shaping up to be a busy one, with the local elections that were "frozen" since the National Council for Peace and Order seized power in 2014 due to go ahead.
After the March 24 general election, speculation was rife that the local polls might be held in October, but the government recently signalled that was unlikely due to delays in the budget bill.
The budget is now expected to be presented in late January 2020, four months behind schedule.
Local polls are therefore likely to be pushed back by at least six months, which means March 2020 at the earliest.
There are several levels of local elections, but according to the draft election calendar drawn up by the Interior Ministry and the Election Commission (EC), the Bangkok gubernatorial contest and Bangkok district councillor polls will take place first along with elections for chiefs of provincial administrative organisations (PAOs) in 76 provinces.
The election season will conclude with the tambon administrative organisation (TAOs) race involving almost 100,000 positions.
A total of 142,590 positions are up for grabs and the Interior Ministry expects a high voter turnout and a fierce contest which will draw between 400,000-500,000 aspiring politicians.
The major parties have yet to say whether they will battle for local seats, but the Future Forward Party (FFP) is preparing to enter the fray following the party's successful debut in national politics.
Projected turnout of 90%
Suttipong Juljarern, director-general of the Department of Local Administration, said next year will see the country's largest-ever local political contest as the terms of local officeholders at 7,852 local administrative organisations all need to be renewed in the same year.
The voter turnout in previous local polls was between 70%-80%, but after a long election drought, Mr Suttipong expects the latest round to see a higher proportion take part.
"A 90% turnout is possible if local people want to see changes," he said.
Many officeholders have been in situ for five to seven years due to suspended elections, according to Mr Suttipong. "If they aren't up to their jobs, people will come out and vote for a change," he said.
Test of govt popularity
Thammasat University vice-rector Prinya Thaewanarumitkul said the Bangkok governor election is the most interesting contest to watch and it is expected to be fought keenly between four major parties from the government and opposition camps.
On the government front, the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) is expected to enter a race which will also be a first chance for voters to express their opinion of the ruling coalition.
The Democrat Party, a government partner which won the previous Bangkok governor race yet failed to capture a single seat in the March election, is expected to try its best to defend its turf despite that setback.
As for the opposition camp, the Pheu Thai Party and the FFP are likely to send their own candidate in the race, possibly undermining each other's chances.
Asst Prof Prinya said the PAOs elections in 76 provinces will be an intense competition between five parties, with the Bhumjtaithai Party included, adding the contest is one of the best opportunities to expand or strengthen their political bases.
"The local polls will be a test of the government's popularity and these tests will take place every three months. The political temperature will be high throughout," he said.
However, Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, sees things differently.
"If the polls were held before the general election, the atmosphere might have been intense. As it is, the FFP may capture voters in urban areas in some provinces but they stand a slim chance in rural areas."
FFP eyeing 20 top PAO seats
Of the five major parties, the FFP is the only one to have announced a plan to field candidates in local elections under the party's banner.
FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been on a nationwide road tour targeting provinces where the party received a high number of votes in the general election.
The other parties have so far set up committees to issue policies for local issues and select election candidates.
FFP deputy leader Chamnan Chanruang insisted the party will not collaborate with its opposition partner, Pheu Thai.
Based on the national election results, the FFP will field candidates in 20-30 provinces where it finished first or second in the national polls. These provinces include Chiang Mai, Phrae, Chon Buri and Samut Sakhon, he said.
Old-timers on the fence
While the FFP has made clear its plan to take part in local elections, other major parties would seem to prefer to keep a distance and let local politics be handled by their MPs in the provinces.
PPRP MP Suchart Chomklin said talks about local elections have begun in the core coalition party. However, PPRP key figures are cautious about sending candidates to contest local polls under the party's banner.
"The party may send candidates on the party's ticket in some provinces such as Songkhla where the party won four House seats, half of the total seats available. The party's brand can boost the candidates' chance," he said.
According to Mr Suchart, more often than not local elections are won by factors different from the national polls.
According to Mr Suchart, in Chon Buri there is the "We Love Chon Buri" group that he supports.
In the 2007 general election, the Democrat Party won all the House seats in the eastern province but it lost to the group in the PAO election.
"The FFP plans to field candidates under the party's banner in several provinces because they want to test their popularity," he said.
Anudith Nakornthap, secretary-general of the Pheu Thai Party, said the party has set up a committee to work on policies and select candidates but it has yet to be decided which local elections the party will contest.
Democrat deputy leader Nipit Intarasombat said even though the party considers that local elections promote decentralisation of power, it usually keeps its distance from local polls to avoid divisiveness.
Local officials in no hurry
Nopporn Wutthikul, mayor of Hua Hin municipality, said he did not mind delays in local polls.
"The government is responsible for setting aside the budget to finance the polls and should be ready. The manpower for poll watch duties should also be ready," he said.
He said he is aware of parties' interest in contesting local elections, but warned that "local elections are about local issues. Political parties may not understand these issues well enough".
Kreeta Chotewitpipat, head of tambon Wichit municipality in the southern province of Phuket, is in favour of a delay to give parties time to prepare.
"There are several levels of local elections and the intensity varies from area to area too," he said, but added they were likely to spark "widespread interest" in most areas. Public excitement as the polls approach is likely to mount, especially given the past delays.