Bangkok governor’s race seen as ‘barometer’ for next general election

Subel Rai Bhandari
2022.05.18
Bangkok
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Bangkok governor’s race seen as ‘barometer’ for next general election Former Thai Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt, an independent candidate for Bangkok governor, talks with homeless people during a debate in the capital city, May 4, 2022.
Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews

Updated at 11:40 a.m. ET on 2022-05-23

Bangkok residents will elect their governor for the first time in nearly a decade on Sunday, with observers saying the vote could be a bellwether gauging the popularity of the military-linked national government ahead of the next general election, expected in 2023.

Aswin Kwanmuang, a retired police general who was appointed in 2016 as governor of the Thai capital by then-junta chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha and is known to be an ally, is one of 31 candidates seeking to lead the local government. Aswin resigned in March to campaign for election to the office.

The Bangkok election, the first since 2013, “is a barometer for the national mood,” Thai political analyst Navaporn Sunanlikanon told BenarNews.

“This election is a great depiction of the political landscape of Bangkok, and it will show whether or not the people are still in favor of the current government,” said Navaporn, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University.

Prayuth, the retired army chief, has been in power since he led a military coup that toppled an elected government in May 2014, but allegations of corruption, economic mismanagement and a bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic have dogged his government lately.

He became prime minister following the coup and was elected by parliament to that post in 2019. As an elected PM, he has faced down three unsuccessful no-confidence votes. 

Recent polling showed Aswin, Prayuth’s gubernatorial appointee, running a distant third with nearly 14 percent support.

Independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt, a former transport minister under Yingluck Shinawatra, the prime minister deposed by Gen. Prayuth, is supported by more than 40 percent of voters, followed by Suchatvee Suwansawat, the coalition Democrat Party candidate at about 15.5 percent, according to the Suan Dusit Rajabhat University survey conducted last week.

‘I see my city degrade every year’

Since March, Bangkok streets have been filled with life-size campaign posters of candidates for governor and 382 contenders for 50 seats on the Metropolitan Council. 

Last month, a video clip went viral showing a woman in a wheelchair and her helper moving awkwardly around one candidate’s sign that took up a lot of space on the sidewalk and promised Bangkok residents a “better life.”

Voters said the capital city faces issues including a lack of sidewalks, traffic jams, flash flooding, messy electrical and communication wires hanging along the streets, air pollution and garbage management.

“I was born and raised in Bangkok, and I see my city degrade every year,” Saranya Chareonpatrawu told BenarNews.

“Yes, we have big shopping malls and the Skytrain, but the roads and footpaths are horrible. There is rubbish everywhere and the air pollution is sometimes unbearable,” said Saranya, a 26-year-old banker and first-time voter in a gubernatorial election.

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A Thai woman walks past campaign signs as Bangkok prepares for the upcoming gubernatorial election, May 18, 2022. [Subel Rai Bhandari/BenarNews]

First-time voters

Saranya is among the about 700,000 Bangkok residents who will be voting for governor for the first time in the May 22 election. They represent 16 percent of the capital’s 4.3 million registered voters, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The minimum voting age is 18.

“If we talk about the new generation of voters … I think it’s not fair if we focus only on teenagers. Because even the elders cannot remember the last Bangkok governor election, which was nine years ago,” said Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, 44, a candidate running under the young opposition Move Forward Party.

“I think many people hope to see change, structural change from the root, and this is our target,” he said at an event in April.

Wiroj, who quit parliament to run for governor, was the top candidate among the first-time voters while placing fourth overall in the survey by Suan Dusit.

The vote falls on the anniversary of the Prayuth-led junta seizing power – an irony not lost on Wiroj.

“The election date, May 22 – eight years ago, a coup d’état occurred, right,” he asked. “So, this will definitely be payback for Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s act.”

The Bangkok vote will have significant implications on national politics and vice versa, said political analyst Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, a think-tank in Singapore. 

“If Bangkok voters are happy with the prime minister, they will vote for either Aswin or Suchatvee. But if they are upset, they will turn to either Chadchart or Wiroj,” he wrote in a commentary last month.

Chadchart had a “commanding lead in opinion surveys” mainly because he was better prepared, Termsak said while noting that the three other top candidates could score an upset victory. Sentiments of the 700,000 new voters and Prayuth’s fluctuating political fortune could help determine the May 22 outcome.

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Aswin Kwanmuang, the junta-appointed governor of Bangkok who resigned from office in March to run in the May 22 gubernatorial election, speaks with reporters as he visits the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration Office, May 17, 2022. [Pimuk Rakkanam/BenarNews]

Fed up with political parties

Poll-leader Chadchart, 55, said the vote will reflect “some but not 100 percent” of the current national political mood.

“People are fed up with big parties’ politics,” he said. “If you are with a party, the hierarchy and the policy will impede the actual work, but if you are an “independent, you control your every policy.”

One Bangkok voter said Chadchart might be “the most original politician” in recent years.

“Major political party candidates have disappointed me. I don’t think any young people will vote for them,” Somchai Kasem told BenarNews.

“I like Chadchart because he is always talking to the people on the ground. His movement has 10,000 volunteers,” said Somchai, a café worker.

Bangkok is the only region in Thailand where people can directly vote for the governor – an office won in five of the last 10 elections by the Democrat Party, the country’s oldest political party which has a conservative ideology.

Its candidate, Suchatvee, faces an uphill battle as the former deputy party leader, Prinn Panitchpakdi, has been accused of sexually abusing about 20 women in what the local media has called Thailand’s #MeToo moment.

Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanawisit, the party leader, issued an apology and promised an investigation while Prinn has resigned.

“Sexual harassment is unacceptable. I want to make it clear. The question is … how do we prevent it,” said Suchatvee, 50, adding that he will focus on prevention and punishment if elected governor.

Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok and Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of seats on the Metropolitan Council.

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