The election for the post of governor of Bangkok is due to take place in the last quarter of this year. However, Thailand’s major political parties lack suitable candidates with realistic chances of victory.
Major Thai political parties are facing a dreadful predicament. An election for the post of governor of Bangkok is on the horizon for the last quarter of 2021, but most of the country’s parties still do not have strong candidates to run. At the same time, their predicament is that most of them need to be seen to take this election seriously if they are to generate momentum in anticipation of a possible early general election early next year. Since 1975, Bangkok has been the only province in Thailand whose residents have the right to elect their governor. The governor serves a four-year term, and may stand for re-election for another term. The Ministry of Interior appoints the governors of Thailand’s remaining 76 provinces.
Recent public opinion polls show that nearly one-third of Bangkok voters remain undecided. (See Table I.)
The coming election will be the first gubernatorial election in Bangkok since 2013; the military regime that took power in May 2014 cancelled sub-national elections during the half-decade that it held power. So far, all those who have declared interest in the post intend to run as independents. The candidate with the greatest potential to win is Chadchart Sitthipun, who has been preparing for this year’s Bangkok gubernatorial election since November 2019.
Most of Thailand’s major parties will seek to use the polls to win respect from Bangkok voters, since gaining political acceptance in the Thai capital is a significant boost to a party’s public image at the national level.
When Bangkok voters choose their Bangkok Governor, they will also vote to fill the Bangkok Metropolitan Council and the capital’s 50 district-level councils.
NEW OPPORTUNITY FOR PHALANG PRACHARAT PARTY
The Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP), the core party of Thailand’s ruling coalition, remains undecided on what to do. Two potential candidates, ex-national police chief Pol Gen Chakthip Chaijinda and incumbent Bangkok Governor Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, have been vying for support of the PPP leadership.
The 2014-2019 National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta appointed Aswin to the governorship in October 2016. As the incumbent, Governor Aswin has a clear edge. Three incumbent Bangkok governors have won re-elections since the introduction of polls for the post in 1975. And Aswin has recently gained media exposure through his active role in supporting the Prayut Chan-ocha administration’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s largest slum.
Chakthip, on the other hand, did not have a particular noteworthy record during his five years as the national police chief. He appears, however, to have political ambitions in national politics, and contesting the Bangkok election may be just a debut intended to draw public attention.
If PPP leader Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwan — a leading figure in the former junta — had his way, however, he would not want the PPP to field or endorse any candidate in the approaching Bangkok polls. He is concerned that the party would be violating Thailand’s current local government administration law, which is designed to deter interference in local government on the part of powerful national parties.
Members of parliament, including senators, as well as cabinet members are prohibited from offering any form of assistance to candidates in local elections. Parties must carefully record and then report every baht spent on campaigning for their candidates. Any misstep can lead to lawsuits and party dissolution.
… (The PPP’s) victory in the Bangkok gubernatorial election is far from guaranteed. In the past ten Bangkok gubernatorial elections, a government party’s candidate has won only once, in 2009, during the premiership of the Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Nevertheless, Captain Thammanat Prompow, who is the de facto manager of the PPP, is keen to tackle the challenge of competing in the Bangkok election. The PPP won 12 of the 30 House seats in the Thai capital in the March 2019 general election, and its machine and grassroots bases in Bangkok have been growing ever since, chiefly because of its leading role in the ruling coalition.
Thammanat’s political fortune and clout are also on the rise. At the PPP’s annual leadership meeting in Khon Kaen on 18 June, he was elected the PPP’s new secretary-general. Earlier, he succeeded in helping a PPP candidate win the by-election in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat in early March. That was an especially remarkable achievement, given that the province was long a political stronghold of the Democrat Party. In May, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that Thammanat could remain a member of Prime Minister Prayut’s cabinet despite his conviction on drug-smuggling charges in Australia in the 1990s.
Thammanat personally proposed — and party leader General Prawit agreed — that the PPP should hold its leadership meeting in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen. The province sends ten members to the House of Representatives. In Thailand’s most populous Isan region, only Nakhon Ratchasima’s 14 House seats exceed that total, while Ubon Ratchathani also has ten House seats. Staging a show of force in Khon Kaen – one of the strongholds of the Phuea Thai Party in the Northeast – is part of the PPP’s and Thammanat’s emerging plan to best Phuea Thai in the next general election.
Helping a PPP candidate win the Bangkok governor’s post will be yet another prominent feather in Thammanat’s political cap. Such an impressive achievement will reinforce his position as the new secretary-general of the party. But Thammanat will need both to avoid being seen to violate the law that prohibits his involvement in sub-national elections such as this one and to consider carefully the pros and cons of candidates whom the PPP might field or endorse.
Regardless of the PPP’s political clout and financial resources at the national level, its victory in the Bangkok gubernatorial election is far from guaranteed. In the past ten Bangkok gubernatorial elections, a government party’s candidate has won only once, in 2009, during the premiership of the Democrat Party’s Abhisit Vejjajiva. (See the Table II.)
TWO GOVERNMENT PARTIES WITH DIFFERENT NEEDS
Bhumjaithai, the second largest party in the ruling coalition, will most likely just stay out of the Bangkok race. It has neither MPs nor a grassroots base in the Thai capital. Bhumjaithai Party secretary-general Transport Minister Saksiam Chidchob has also been at odds with the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration over delays in mass transit projects in Bangkok and adjacent provinces, and over commuters’ resultant inconvenience and unhappiness.
Saksiam was hospitalised in April after contracting COVID-19 under mysterious circumstances. He faced accusations of being a virus “super-spreader” following his alleged visits to nightclubs in Soi Thonglor, Bangkok’s high-end night spot. The minister has denied ever visiting any of the infamous nightclubs, where several hostesses were infected and suspected of being sources of the current “third wave” of COVID-19 infections in Thailand.
Whether or not Minister Saksiam was to be blamed for contributing to this wave is one question. Another is whether Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul, a deputy prime minister and the Minister of Public Health, has failed to work collaboratively enough with Prime Minister General Prayut in tackling the pandemic.
In late April, General Prayut imposed an emergency decree to transfer cabinet ministers’ administrative powers under 31 laws to himself. The purpose of this transfer was to enable the prime minister to enforce those laws directly under his “single command” in the face of the coronavirus crisis. The transfer made the ministers concerned, particularly Anutin, look bad. Under such adverse circumstances, the Bhumjaithai Party has practically no chance of winning the coming Bangkok election.
Further complicating the situation, Phuea Thai and other opposition parties have been egging on the Bhumjaithai leadership to quit the ruling coalition. Believing that the party has potential to lead an alternative coalition government, they hope to force General Prayut to resign or to dissolve the House and call an early general election.
The Democrat Party, the third largest government party, has been hoping against hope to make a come-back, particularly in Bangkok. It suffered a humiliating wash-out in the city in the last general election, failing to win any of its 30 House seats.
On the other hand, the party has a record of enjoying strong support from Bangkok voters in gubernatorial elections. In fact, its candidates won the last four successive elections for Bangkok’s governor.
Democrat Party deputy party leader Ong-art Klampaiboon, who is in charge of the party’s preparation for the Bangkok election, has narrowed down his search to two unnamed potential candidates. The individual finally chosen will be a knowledgeable public person with strong determination, high-level leadership experience, and capability to work with others, according to Ong-art.
However, the recent failure of the Democrat Party to defend its House seat in the by-election in Nakhon Si Thammarat has reinforced public perception that the party is in decline. In contrast to Bhumjai Thai, it is seen to have no capability to lead an alternative government coalition.
PHUEA THAI’S LOST OPPORTUNITY
The Phuea Thai Party has not been successful in leading the opposition to the Prayut government. Worse still, it has suffered from defections and internal dissent. Winning the Bangkok gubernatorial election can be the magical panacea to heal all these wounds and strengthen the party in time for the next general election. The party has significant support in outlying districts of the capital, where it won nine House seats in the last general election.
But the party is still looking for a viable candidate for the post of Bangkok governor. At first it thought it had a sure-winner in Chadchart, its second nominee for the premiership in the last general election. But Chadchart left the party in November 2019 and has declined its offers of support and endorsement in the race for governor.
Another potential Phuea Thai candidate was Sudarat Keyuraphan, the party’s top nominee for the premiership in 2019. Sudarat came second in the Bangkok gubernatorial election of July 2000 as the candidate of the Thai Rak Thai Party — the predecessor of the People’s Power Party, which was in turn the predecessor of the Phuea Thai Party. She was beaten that year by Samak Sundaravej of the Thai Citizens Party, who in 2008 became the prime minister in the People’s Power Party-led government coalition. But Sudarat left the Phuea Thai Party in November 2020 to lead a new party, called Thai Sang Thai or Thais build Thailand.
It is highly unlikely that Sudarat will stand in the approaching Bangkok election. Most probably her party will field a young and upcoming candidate, and Sudarat will help with the campaign to make her own and her new party’s presence felt in the campaign.
MOVING OUT OF THANATHORN’S SHADOW
Another opposition party that needs to make its presence felt in Bangkok’s gubernatorial election is the Move Forward Party, a successor party of the dissolved Future Forward Party of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. After the dissolution of the latter party in February 2020 and the disqualification of Thanathorn from politics for 10 years, Thanathorn established a new political action group called the Progressive Movement.
Despite Thanathorn’s active campaigning, the Progressive Movement failed to capture a single provincial administrative organisation in elections held in December 2020. It also fared poorly in municipal elections held this past March. Those two successive failures have undermined Thanathorn’s influence. Nevertheless, he still hopes that his Progressive Movement will be able to do better in another round of local government elections, at the tambon or sub-district level, which may be held in July or August of this year.
After those polls, Thanathorn and his Progressive Movement plan to step aside and let the Move Forward Party field a candidate in the Bangkok gubernatorial election. The party would certainly relish the opportunity to move out of Thanathorn’s political shadow and stage its own show in Bangkok. It could still count on the popularity of Thanathorn and the former Future Forward Party in the capital, where the party won nine of 30 House seats 2019 — partly because of overwhelming support from young voters.
Move Forward has been looking for someone from the “new generation” who, according to party leader Pita Limcharoenrat, must have clear and innovative ideas, be forward-looking, and have a good understanding of Bangkok people and their aspirations.
So far, the Move Forward Party has not announced its candidate for the Bangkok governor’s post. Speculation that it will field Thanathorn’s elder sister Chanaphan has been dismissed by the party spokesperson. It seems only to have been an unusual coincidence that Chanaphan has been an active supporter of the party’s new “Orange Peel Group” set up in May to prepare for the Bangkok election.
After the tambon elections across provincial Thailand in July or August, the Bangkok gubernatorial election — along with polls for the manager of the world-famous beach resort of Pattaya, with its special administrative status — will be the last set of sub-national elections.
CHADCHART THE HOT FAVOURITE
Recent polls have shown that at least one in five of Bangkok voters intends to vote for Chadchart, who holds a doctorate in structural engineering from University of Illinois, earned while on a King’s Scholarship. The Thai media has given him the nickname “the Strongest Man on Earth” because he is physically very fit, and bikes and skateboards in his neighbourhood. He sometimes goes out in shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers. Though he is in his mid-fifties, his down-to-earth demeanour appeals to young voters.
Chadchart has explained that he left the Phuea Thai Party to pursue the Bangkok governor’s post as an independent candidate because he saw the need to build a broader non-partisan united front of all Bangkokians who aspire to work together for a “Better Bangkok”. He has successfully used his Facebook page to recruit volunteers and “Friends of Chadchart” to join him in visiting Bangkok neighbourhoods and bringing basic supplies to the poor, as well as in listening to the grievances and ideas of Bangkokians at the grassroots level.
Chadchart’s well-organised preparations are creating a groundswell of popular support for his campaign to become governor of Bangkok. It may also attract the undecided to vote for him.
Chadchart’s active electoral preparations, underway since November 2019, have also led a number of potential candidates for the Bangkok Metropolitan Council and district councils to leave their political parties and to jump on his “Better Bangkok” bandwagon. A stronger team of candidates for the council elections will enhance Chadchart’s prospects for winning the governor’s post.
Chadchart’s popularity has created new headaches for all the major political parties. It has become difficult for parties to find enough candidates for posts on the metropolitan and district councils, let alone to have realistic chances of winning seats on those councils.
Chadchart’s well-organised preparations are creating a groundswell of popular support for his campaign to become governor of Bangkok. It may also attract the undecided to vote for him. His strategy of entering the race as an independent appears to be working.
Meanwhile, having a strong party label will be a political liability rather than a political asset in Bangkok for candidates from government parties and opposition parties alike.
The PPP and Thammanat, therefore, will have to think long and hard before committing the party to any course of action in the race. Thammanat does not want to risk suffering a major defeat in Bangkok, especially since he has just risen to post of party secretary-general.
The Bhumjaithai Party with its stronghold in Buriram Province, in the lower Northeast, is likely to stay out of the Bangkok election altogether. This is a convenient position but one that may leave the party looking bad, especially when its leader Anutin aspires to be Thailand’s prime minister.
As for the fumbling Democrat Party, another wash-out in the Bangkok election will almost doubtless constitute a blow from which the party cannot recover.
Strong candidates from the Phuea Thai and the Move Forward Parties will undercut each other as they tap into the same pool of unhappy Bangkok voters who oppose the Prayut administration and its ruling coalition. This effect will directly benefit Chadchart, who is offering his non-partisan united front as a new and better choice.
The Bangkok gubernatorial election and its outcome will have significant implications for all of the country’s major political parties at the national level.
This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2021/84 published on 22 June 2021. The paper and its footnotes can be accessed at this link.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.