Chadchart Sittipunt speaks with residents as he campaigns

Thailand’s former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt (centre) speaks with residents, as he campaigns as an independent candidate in the upcoming Bangkok gubernatorial election, in Pathum Wan district in Bangkok on 5 April 2022. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA/AFP.)

Long Reads

More Political Implications Than Meet the Eye in Upcoming Election for Bangkok Governor

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Bangkok’s voters will go to the polls to elect a new governor on 22 May 2022 for the first time in nearly a decade. The clear front-runner is former transport minister Dr Chadchart Sittipunt. This article evaluates the prospects for a surprise upset.

INTRODUCTION

A new record number of 31 candidates have entered the race for the post of governor of Bangkok, with one subsequently disqualified. Few of these aspirants, however, have the potential to best the favoured front-runner, Dr Chadchart Sittipunt. Who among those few might be able to pull a surprise upset victory on 22 May? And how?

Dr Chadchart is running as an independent. He has no team in the simultaneous race for the 50 seats on the Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC), but has a large team of over 10,000 volunteers to help in the campaign, and the endorsement of former Bangkok Governor Dr Bhichit Rattakul.

The 55-year-old former transport minister in the 2011-2014 Yingluck Shinawatra administration received a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was the No. 2 nominee of the Phuea Thai Party (PT) for the premiership in the 2019 general election.

Chadchart left the chief opposition party in November 2019 to prepare for the Bangkok gubernatorial election. One remarkable outcome of his two-year-long preparation is his raft of 200 proposed policy initiatives in nine areas intended to make Bangkok a liveable city for every resident.

However, critics still question whether Chadchart has actually severed all his ties with PT. They point out that the party has not fielded a candidate in the Bangkok governor’s election, allegedly for fear of undermining Chadchart. In the meantime, it is running a full slate of 50 candidates in the BMC election.

Chadchart says that he is a genuine “independent” who will be able to work with all parties if he is elected. By his own assessment, his only “weakness” is his lack of a political base in major Bangkok communities, many of which are strongholds of well-established parties.

Chadchart has consistently led in the NIDA Poll’s surveys of voter preferences over the past two years. In the NIDA Poll published on 10 April, he maintained a commanding lead with 38.84 per cent support from respondents in the survey conducted between 5-7 April. Importantly, however, the number of “undecided” respondents remained high, at 26.69 per cent.

Coming in a distant second place with 10.06 per cent support was former Bangkok Governor Pol Gen Asawin Kwangmuang, whom the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta placed in the job in 2016 and who only recently resigned in order to run in the May election.

In third and fourth places were the Democrat Party’s candidate Dr Suchatchavee Sawansawas, with 6.83 per cent, and the Move Forward Party’s candidate Dr Wiroj Lakkhana-adisorn, with 6.02 per cent.

A survey undertaken by Thammasat University’s Research and Consultancy Institute and published on 3 April showed that Chadchart’s popularity has declined to 25.7 per cent, from 33.8 per cent in early February.

Even then, Chadchart appeared to remain the most popular front-runner at the start of the election campaign in early April. What can go wrong in his quest for the Bangkok governorship?

Former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt speaks to AFP as he campaigns as an independent candidate in the upcoming Bangkok gubernatorial election, in Phayathai district in Bangkok on May 5, 2022. (Photo: Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

NEW CRUCIAL FACTORS

The new record number of 31 candidates reflects the strong interest of Bangkok voters in the city’s long-delayed gubernatorial election, the first since 3 March 2013. Those polls saw incumbent Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party re-elected with 1.256 million votes.

On 25 August 2016, Sukhumbhand was dismissed by NCPO leader and Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha on suspicion of corruption. General Prayut then appointed Asawin to succeed him.

Some 4.273 million voters will be eligible to cast ballots in the upcoming election. After a wait of nine years for the election, voter turnout is expected to be higher than the 63.38 per cent in the 2013 election. Be that as it may, the winner of the upcoming election needs only some one million votes to reach victory, chiefly because of the large number of candidates in the race.

One huge voting bloc is the estimated 700,000 voters aged between 18 and 27 who will cast ballots for Bangkok governor for the first time. Whoever manages to win the hearts and minds of these young voters will have a significant edge.

Only three political parties have fielded candidates in both the gubernatorial and the BMC elections: the Democrats, Move Forward and Thai Sang Thai (Thais Build Thailand). Four other parties have candidates only in the BMC election: PT, Phalang Pracharat, Kla, and Ruamthai United. The latter is, however, fielding only 12 and 5 candidates, respectively. And one party, Phalang Sangkom Mai, ran the ultimately disqualified Kraidej Bunnag as its candidate in the Bangkok Governor race, but no candidates in the BMC election.

Laws regulating local government elections prohibit holders of public office—ministers, members of parliament, senators, senior government officials and military officers—from taking part in election campaigns. These laws tend to work to the disadvantage of major political parties.

For example, Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, cannot campaign for the party’s candidate Wiroj, because Pita is an MP. Ironically, people who have been banned from participating in national politics, such as Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Progressive Movement, can nevertheless campaign for candidates in local-government elections. Thanathorn has in fact been campaigning for Wiroj as well as for his movement’s candidate in the Pattaya City manager election, Kittisak Nilwattanatochai.

Former Governor Asawin’s candidacy constitutes yet another crucial factor in the race, as it makes the contest more competitive and the outcome more unpredictable. All three other incumbent Bangkok governors who have stood for re-election in the past won.

THREE RIVALS FOR NO. 2 SPOT

As their campaigning intensifies, Asawin, Wiroj and the Democrat Party’s candidate Suchatchavee appear to have reasonable prospects to emerge as the runner-up behind front-runner Chadchart.

Asawin has the advantage of incumbency, having spent nearly six years heading the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The full team of 50 candidates that his “Rak Krungthep” or “Preserve Bangkok” group is fielding in the BMC election will also help him draw votes.

Prime Minister General Prayut and Interior Minister General Anupong Paochinda seem to favour Asawin, although they are prohibited by law from showing overt support for his candidacy. Every Bangkok governor needs the support of the prime minister and the interior minister, especially in maintaining public security and seeking extra funds to deal with emergencies, like in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Asawin’s campaign emphasises his management experience in leading the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and his wish to stay on to “finish the job” for the Thai capital. He tried but failed to obtain the endorsement of the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPP), the largest party in the ruling coalition. In addition to this setback, there are the factors of his advanced age of 71 and his police background, each of which will turn away many young voters.

With Thanathorn’s active support, 44-year-old Wiroj can attract considerable attention from young voters, who tend to dislike both General Prayut and General Anupong. His gain is likely to come at the expense of Chadchart. Thanathorn’s backing means that Wiroj can count on the support of a large number of Bangkok voters who voted for the former’s Future Forward Party in the 2019 general election. Those polls saw the party capture more than 800,000 votes and win eight of Bangkok’s 30 seats in the House of Representatives. Wiroj was a Future Forward party-list MP who moved on to join the Move Forward Party after the Future Forward was dissolved in February 2020.

As an opposition MP, Wiroj proved tenacious in criticising General Prayut and General Anupong, two of the strongmen behind the 2014 coup. His confrontational style raises serious doubt over whether he will be able to implement new initiatives if he is elected the Bangkok governor. Tackling the city’s chronic traffic problem, for example, requires the cooperation of the traffic police, who are under the supervision of the prime minister, General Prayut.

If Bangkok voters are happy with the prime minister, they will vote for either Asawin or Suchatchavee. But if they are upset, they will turn to either Chadchart or Wiroj.

Wiroj’s campaign promise of creating a new Bangkok in which all Bangkokians are equal sounds idealistic and abstract. What, after all, can a Bangkok governor, with her or his limited authority, do to tackle the inequality that has become such a defining national concern for Thailand?

The 49-year-old Suchatchavee is meanwhile, positioning himself as an MIT-educated structural engineer who knows how to utilise modern technologies to tackle the chronic problems of Bangkok. The former rector of the justifiably prestigious King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology-Ladkrabang has the strong backing of Thailand’s oldest party and member of the prime minister’s governing coalition, the Democrats. Its candidates had won five of the past 10 Bangkok gubernatorial elections. Suchatchavee also enjoys the assistance of a team of 50 candidates in the BMC election.

Public sentiments in Bangkok towards the premiership of General Prayut will have a direct impact on the Bangkok election. If Bangkok voters are happy with the prime minister, they will vote for either Asawin or Suchatchavee. But if they are upset, they will turn to either Chadchart or Wiroj.

SPOILERS ON THE SIDELINES

Three other candidates are trying to do all that they can to make their presence in the race for governor of Bangkok felt. These are Thai Sang Thai Party’s candidate Squadron Leader Sita Divari and the independent candidates former Bangkok Senator Rosana Tositrakul, and Sakolthee Pattayakul. None of these three candidates received over 3.0 per cent of support in the NIDA Poll of 10 April.

Like his party leader Sudarat Keyaraphan, 57-year-old Sita formerly belonged to the PT. He was also a prominent F-16 fighter pilot in the Royal Thai Air Force. His candidacy will directly undermine Chadchart because both will count on votes from backers of the PT. Thai Sang Thai’s team of 50 candidates in the BMC election will also clash head on with the team from the PT.

Sudarat’s photograph and name feature prominently on Sita’s campaign posters. She was PT’s No. 1 nominee for the premiership in the 2019 general election, and her political stronghold was and still is in Bangkok’s eastern and northern suburbs. She left the PT in November 2020 to launch a new party of her own.

Sudarat can take an active part in the campaign for Bangkok governor because she is not an MP. Her ulterior motive in fielding Sita and the team of 50 candidates in the BMC election is clearly to advertise her new Thai Sang Thai Party in preparation for the next general election, when the number of House of Representatives seats in Bangkok will increase from 30 to 34.

Another lady who is trying to energise Bangkok voters is 68-year-old former senator Rosana. She was elected a senator for Bangkok in 2008 with nearly 750,000 votes. In the current race, she has received the tacit support of former two-time Bangkok Governor Maj Gen Chamlong Srimuang. She has also picked up the endorsement of the influential State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation, thanks to her work in opposition to the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

Rosana is capitalising in her campaign on her achievements in consumer protection, environmental protection and energy conservation. But she has neither a party machine nor a team of BMC candidates to support her. Her best bet is to convince those voters who are still “undecided”, estimated at around 20 per cent of the Bangkok electorate, to consider her.

One of the youngest candidates contesting the Bangkok governor election is 44-year-old Sakolthee Pattayakul. He previously served as one of the four deputies to Governor Asawin, in charge of public order, health and the environment. He also won a seat as an MP for Bangkok under the banner of the Democrat Party in the 2011 general election.

Sakolthee joined the anti-Yingluck protests of November 2013-May 2014 that, under the leadership of Suthep Thuagsuban of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, precipitated the military coup of the latter month. Suthep has now endorsed Sakolthee in the Bangkok governor election, saying that Sakolthee knows what needs to be done, and has the experience as well as the connections in the Prayut government, to get things done for Bangkok.

Sakolthee is directly competing with Asawin and Suchatchavee for the support of pro-government voters.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Front-runner Chadchart certainly cannot rest on his laurels and hope to cruise to a comfortable victory without doing more heavy lifting in the last few weeks before the 22 May voting day. At least three crucial factors will determine how the election will unfold.

[There] is the lingering doubt about whether Dr Chadchart is a secret ally of the [Phuea Thai Party, PT], spearheading in the vanguard to capture the Bangkok governorship as part of the party’s ambitious plan to score a “landslide victory” in the next general election. Bangkok voters who oppose the PT will not vote for Chadchart.

First and foremost, the internal political stability of the ruling coalition is improving. The prime minister and some ministers will soon face a grilling in the House in a no-confidence debate after the parliament opens on 22 May for the 2022-2023 session, and General Prayut’s self-confidence and popularity will rise as there is no longer any serious threat to unseat him in the no-confidence vote. This will ease tensions among Bangkok voters and lead them to consider more favourably voting for pro-government candidates, particularly Asawin, Suchatchavee and Sakolthee.

Another unpredictable factor is the collective voting behaviour of the 700,000 young voters. Most probably, a large portion of this voting bloc will support Wiroj, regardless of what will happen in the General Prayut administration.

Last but not least is the lingering doubt about whether Dr Chadchart is a secret ally of the PT, spearheading in the vanguard to capture the Bangkok governorship as part of the party’s ambitious plan to score a “landslide victory” in the next general election. Bangkok voters who oppose the PT will not vote for Chadchart.

CONCLUSION

The upcoming elections in Bangkok will have significant implications on national politics, and vice versa.

Chadchart has maintained a commanding lead in opinion surveys, chiefly because he has been much better prepared than all other candidates over the past two years.

Three other candidates have improving prospects of scoring an upset victory. The fluctuating political fortune of the prime minister, the sentiments of the 700,000 young voters, and, finally, how well Chadchart can clear up the lingering doubt about his alleged secret alliance with PT, will determine the final outcome of the Bangkok governor election on 22 May.

This is an adapted version of ISEAS Perspective 2022/43 published on 26 April 2022. The paper and its references can be accessed at this link.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow and Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.