A bellwether election in Bangkok

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2022.05.31
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A bellwether election in Bangkok Chadchart Sittipunt, a former minister from the Thai government that was ousted in a military coup in 2014, casts ballots for Bangkok governor and Bangkok council member, in Bangkok, May 22, 2022.
[Suntorn Chongcharoen/BenarNews]

On May 22, the citizens of Bangkok elected a new governor: Chadchart Sittipunt, an independent candidate and former minister in the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was deposed in a military coup in 2014.

The election was noteworthy for a few reasons.

Chadchart, who ran on a progressive platform, won a commanding 51 percent of the vote. He received 1.38 million votes and won more than 50 percent of the vote in every of Bangkok’s 50 constituencies.

The election was an important bellwether for the national elections that have to be held by March 2023.

Police Gen. Aswin Kwanmuang, the incumbent government whom the junta appointed to the post in 2016, had both the power of incumbency and the support of the military-backed government.

He was humiliated, coming in fifth place, with a mere 8 percent of the vote. Aswin had replaced a popular twice-elected leader, Sukumbhand Paribatra, and was blamed by the citizens of Bangkok for not dealing with the city’s host of problems. Aswin resigned in March in order to contest the election, but still was considered as the incumbent.

In a sign of the national mood, the results ended up being better for Chadchart and worse for Aswin than predicted. In polling a week before the election, Chadchart was running at around 40 percent support, and Aswin was in third place with 14 percent support.

But Aswin’s loss probably portends greater problems for the Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), the military’s political vehicle. The economy has continued to stall, despite the country’s reopening to tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic was far more costly to Thailand economically than medically. Thailand’s superb medical system and public health administration succeeded where politicians did not.

The pandemic exacerbated the country’s vast income inequality, already amongst the highest in the world, according to an annual survey by Credit Suisse. That disparity surged during the pandemic, in an economy based on tourism and exports.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha tried to put on a brave face, asserting that it was an election in just “one province” that “reflects nothing on me.” But this is laughable.

Bangkok is home to 11 million of the country’s 70 million people. That 16 percent of the population, which accounts for 25 percent of the country’s GDP, gets 75 percent of general government expenditure. If that’s not the power of incumbency, then what else is?

Chadchart’s electoral win bodes ill for another reason for the government. Chadchart and two other progressive candidates won a combined two-thirds of the vote.

Very clearly, the people of Bangkok are looking for fresh faces and new ideas, tired of the military’s eight-year tenure that has been characterized by ineptness and corruption.

Sign of things to come

It’s also very clear that the establishment – the military, its political arm, and ultra-royalist backers – is unhappy with, and concerned by, the election results.

It came as no surprise that an ultra-royalist, Srisuwan Janya, the secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, immediately challenged the election results, with allegations of vote buying. The charge is absolutely absurd.

Nevertheless, on May 31, the Bangkok Election Commission verified the vote. Chadchart is everything that terrifies the old guard: young, progressive, charismatic, popular, and with ties to the Shinawatras. He poses a threat to 8 years of regressive politics.

All of this raises the larger question: How will the military try to steal the election in 2023?

They are, after all, very unpopular.

In public opinion polling conducted by the National Institute of Democratic Administration (NIDA), the PPRP has seen a loss of more than 50 percent of its support since early 2020, from 17 percent to 8 percent in April 2022.

In that time, Pheu Thai has seen an increase in their support from 20 to 25 percent, on a steady upward trajectory. And while Future Forward has seen a sharp decline since early 2020, in the past half year, they have shown steady growth in public opinion polls.

Support for Prayuth as prime minister plummeted from nearly 30 percent to around 13 percent, according to NIDA in the same period. Prayuth is clearly a liability, and even senior PPRP officials like Prawit Wongsuwan and Anupong Paochinda have been publicly toying with the idea of jettisoning Prayuth.

And while Prayuth may be seen as an electoral liability, the problem for the PPRP is that it does not have anyone else with nationwide-appeal or recognition, other than Prawit and Anupong, themselves geriatric and highly unpopular.

If anyone thinks that I am being too cynical, consider these facts: Would Prayuth be prime minister if not for a military-drafted constitution that weakened large political parties, gerrymandered to hobble the opposition and mal-apportion the vote?

Stymieing opposition

Would he be PM if not for that same constitution that used the Election Commission to dissolve opposition political parties, used a weaponized judiciary to saddle opposition figures with a slew of legal charges, appointed a senate, silenced opponents using charges of Lèse-Majesté, and established a party list system that disadvantaged the largest political party?

Under Westminster rules, the largest vote getter has the right to try to form a government; that was not even on offer to the Pheu Thai in 2019.

The legal cases against the opposition continue unabated. In April 2022, a court charged Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit with Lèse-Majesté, the stringent anti-royal defamation law, for his concerns about an inexperienced royal-owned company producing COVID-19 vaccines. And the government continues to press forward with its controversial NGO bill that could be used to silence all criticism of government policy. 

We have seen a slight shift in PPRP tactics. After designing a constitution to weaken large parties, the PPRP seems to have had some second thoughts, as it is the second-largest party and it will never want for resources. More importantly, since 2019, it’s been confronted by the challenge of governing a fractious coalition government comprising tiny parties.

In September 2021, parliament passed an amendment to change the electoral system which could favor bigger parties including the PPRP, as well as the opposition Pheu Thai Party.

The change would create a two-ballot system where voters elect candidates in single-seat constituencies and a second ballot to vote for a political party.

The number of representatives to be directly elected would increase by 50 to 400 while the number of members to be appointed through proportional representation by party-choice votes would fall by 50 to 100.

That is unlikely enough for the military to maintain their grip on power, as the population continues to search for new faces, to lead the country forward. But if the government disqualifies those new faces it’s in for another round of deep-seated political unrest.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.

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