ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Bangkok’s New Governor is Sending Shockwaves Through Thailand’s Political Landscape

The landslide victory and energetic governing style of Chadchart Sittipunt have implications for politics at the national level.

Bangkok’s New Governor is Sending Shockwaves Through Thailand’s Political Landscape

Independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt campaigning for the Bangkok gubernatorial election, May 20, 2022.

Credit: Facebook/ชัชชาติ สิทธิพันธุ์

On May 22, independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt was elected as the governor of Bangkok in a landslide victory. He gained over 1.38 million votes and led other candidates by a vast margin. In fact, Bangkok is the only province in Thailand where the governor is elected to a four-year term rather than being appointed by the Ministry of Interior. Given the demographic centrality and political dominance of the Thai capital, the results of this election have inevitably sent a strong message to the central government and carry implications for politics at the national level.

Meanwhile, Chadchart’s sweeping triumph means that he is burdened with the massive expectations of the people who voted for him and expect his team to deliver tangible results soon. He is also challenged by difficulties having to work with the current government headed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the leader of the military coup of 2014, during which Chadchart was arrested, handcuffed, and detained.

Just over a month after assuming office, Chadchart’s administration has quickly gained widespread praise from the public. There is no one single explanation for this but several factors are likely involved. First is his down-to-earth, open-minded, and compromising personality, which makes him approachable and friendly to all, from executives, colleagues, and merchants to low-ranking workers and ordinary people on the street. As a result, he has been able to accomplish several tasks more quickly, easily, and effectively than his predecessors because his personality traits have encouraged cooperation and participation from all parties. Chadchart is approachable compared to the usual Thai politicians, which obviously contrasts with Prime Minister Prayut’s commanding style of speaking and fiery temperament.

Second, Chadchart started working as the governor of Bangkok right after the official results were announced and has continued to work hard from before dawn – he usually begins his day with a morning jog – to well after dusk. In the event of public hazards such as fires, he has visited and inspected the affected sites shortly after they were reported. As Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University wrote recently in the Bangkok Post, Chadchart has “become a ‘superman-like’ figure, appearing everywhere to address crises big and small all over the Bangkok metropolis.” Of course, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain this level of competence, enthusiasm, and dedication for the full extent of his four-year term.

Third, Chadchart’s administration has shown the Thai capital, and the country at large, unprecedented levels of transparency and accountability. He has urged that Bangkok’s budget be made available for public scrutiny and has exploited digital technology to solve conventional bureaucratic problems, for example, promoting the Traffy Fondue complaints-receiving application, and launching apps for a project to plant one million trees in Bangkok and the Open Bangkok Data scheme, an initiative which aims “to foster citizen participation in city development, conflict reduction, and transparency.”

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Although he began his term with a very limited budget, as the previous governor has spent most of the allocated funds for the fiscal year which will not end until September 30, many analysts agree that he has spent wisely and put resources to good use. Among his most urgent policy decisions has been to disclose the contract for the BTS Skytrain system, one of Bangkok’s major intercity transport networks, and undertake a major transformation of City Hall’s investment arm, Krungthep Thanakom Co. Ltd., which he views as a breeding ground of corruption.

Fourth, Chadchart has proven himself to be a modern, social-media savvy politician with over 2.5 million followers on his Facebook account, where one can view daily livestreams of his activities. With a dedicated PR team to cover his doings, Chadchart uses online communication wisely to turn the stuffy business of governing Thailand’s largest city into a live reality political show reaching millions of social-media users and making it easier for millennials to digest and assimilate the information. To illustrate his online popularity, just hours after a pre-dawn daily jogging Facebook Live episode, his account received more than 50,000 Likes and Loves, 1,600 shares, 7,400 comments, and 404,000 views.

Considering this fact, Chadchart is now delivering important messages not only to the current ruling party, the military-backed Phalang Pracharath Party, but also to the entire political arena. In the eyes of pro-government supporters, he might look like a show-off, a PR man who is putting on a façade, or a proxy of the Pheu Thai Party and Thaksin Shinawatra, as some of his opponents claim. (Chadchart was once a member of the Pheu Thai Party, and served as Transport Minister in the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, which was overthrown in the 2014 coup.) However, for anti-government voters and moderates, he is viewed as a hope for a better tomorrow. Chadchart promised after the election to “overcome all past conflicts in order to move forward together.” “I am ready to be the governor for everyone … we have to get beyond divisions and be united to take Bangkok forward,” he said.

In addition to having to sustain these four strengths, maintaining political neutrality throughout his term is also key if Chadchart wants to heal past political divisions and introduce a better form of politics to Thailand. As Pravit Rojanaphruk wrote recently for Khaosod English, Chadchart’s victory gives national politics “a chance to move away from toxic politics which culminated in the 2014 coup and has since paralyzed any meaningful cooperation among those of different political poles and deepened political hatred for a decade.”

Although many are now starting to think of Chadchart as a potential future prime minister, he is unlikely to run in next year’s general election. But given that the country has been suffering from long-standing political malaise and frustration over the incompetence of the ruling regime, the Chadchart phenomenon could lead the way in setting new standards for politicians and new heights of public expectations. Thailand could derive fruitful benefits and learn many valuable lessons from it, at least for the next four years.