The Significance of the Long-Awaited Bangkok Gubernatorial Election

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The Significance of the Long-Awaited Bangkok Gubernatorial Election

The outcome of the May 22 election will offer clues as to how Thais might vote in the next national polls.

The Significance of the Long-Awaited Bangkok Gubernatorial Election

Independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt campaigns ahead of Bangkok’s May 22 gubernatorial election, in a photo posted on his Facebook page on March 3, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/ชัชชาติ สิทธิพันธุ์

Voters across Thailand’s capital will soon head to the polls to pick their own governor for the first time since 2013. Unlike other Thai provinces, where governors are appointed by the Ministry of Interior, Bangkok has been granted the right to elect its own governor since 1975. The new round of election will be held on May 22 – the day Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in a coup eight years ago and proceeded to suspend all sub-national elections.

Voting behavior in Thailand is determined by a combination of factors: candidate appreciation, party loyalty, and policy appreciation – all of which are closely intertwined with ideology. Although the upcoming Bangkok gubernatorial election will not trigger top leadership changes, it will be a barometer of where things stand and how Thais will vote in the next national election expected to take place before May 2023.

This year’s governor race sees a record-high number of candidates competing. Out of the 30 eligible candidates, there are six most-watched candidates who can broadly be categorized into two competing political camps: the reformist/anti-government faction versus the conservative/pro-government ring. Needless to say, how votes are divided between these two blocs will be a reflection of the public’s sentiment towards the ruling coalition.

Perhaps the more intriguing question is how votes will be distributed between candidates from the same political camp. The reformist/anti-government wing is made up of the independent frontrunner Chadchart Sittipunt, the outspoken Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the Move Forward Party (MFP), and the former fighter pilot Sita Divari of the freshly formed Thai Sang Thai Party, which is led by the veteran politician Sudarat Keyuraphan. With the exception of Wiroj, all of these figures once belonged to the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), Thailand’s largest opposition party. Sudarat and Chadchart were the party’s heavyweights: Both were nominated as the PTP’s prime ministerial candidates (no. 1 and 2 respectively) in the 2019 national election.

Chadchart and Wiroj are particularly active on social media platforms. They will be competing to secure votes from approximately 1 million millennials, which now makes up the largest proportion of qualified voters in Bangkok, and roughly 700,000 young first-time voters aged 18-27. The stakes are especially high for Wiroj, considering that the future of his MFP will rest upon support from the tech-savvy young generation. His primary goal is not to win the governor election, but to ensure that the MFP has command over young voters.

On the side of the conservative/pro-government wing, there are two independents and the Democrat Party’s nominee. The independents, Asawin Kwanmuang and Sakoltee Phattiyakul, are former co-workers. Asawin was the Bangkok governor from 2016 until early this year, though he was appointed by the military junta that seized power in the 2014 coup, while Sakoltee was one of his deputies. The Democrat Party’s Suchatchavee Suwansawas, in contrast, is an engineer/scholar well known for his innovative ideas.

Polls consistently show that Chadchart is leaping towards victory. This is unsurprising given that Chadchart is generally well-liked and has had the first-mover advantage. He left the PTP in late 2019 and has been preparing for the Bangkok election ever since. By distancing himself from the PTP, which lacks a robust support base in Bangkok, Chadchart has successfully attracted widespread non-partisan support.

Still, as argued by Termsak Chalermpalanupap of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, many conservatives still view Chadchart with suspicion. They believe that Chadchart has not truly severed his ties to the PTP and he is part of the PTP’s elaborate scheme to get rid of opposition, to win overwhelmingly in the next national election, and thereby paving the way to bring the self-exiled former premier and PTP’s founding father Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand.

Thus, as has been the case with the 2013 governor election, the conservatives may vote tactically to block Chadchart. In 2013, the unpopular candidate Sukhumband Paribatra was expected to suffer heavy defeat but ended up winning a second term in office with a record-high number of votes simply because he ran under the Democrat Party, which was more preferred than the PTP.

The conservatives are torn between Suchatchavee and Asawin, who are fighting for the second place spot. Suchatchavee is individually much more popular, yet Asawin has what might be termed “structural advantages.” Asawin is not only presumably backed by the military elites, but he is also supported by a well-established network of volunteers, “Rak Krungthep,” whose members will contest in the Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC) election scheduled to happen simultaneously with the governor election. The governor and elected BMC members will need to work closely together.

Suchatchavee’s Democrat Party, on the other hand, has significantly lost its edge in the capital following the disastrous 2019 election defeat and the departures of many prominent MPs. To make matters worse, the party’s rising star and ex-deputy leader Prinn Panitchpakdi has been embroiled in a series of #MeToo scandals.

The 2022 Bangkok governor election must be observed closely. Judging from the polls and public sentiment, Chadchart is almost guaranteed to win. But we need to take into account that Bangkok is a conservative stronghold, and that there remain many silent voters. Chadchart’s defeat would highlight that despite all the talk about “moving beyond political polarization,” Bangkokians (and Thais in general) are still very much divided.