Analysis: Thailand’s 2021 municipal election results show local politics trumps national trends, again

Thailand held its long-delayed municipal elections this past Sunday. This was the second round of local elections, following the polls held last year for Provincial Administration Organization (PAO) seats. 

Thailand uses the thesaban system to govern municipalities. According to this system, there are three types of municipalities depending on the total population, population density and gross income: thesaban Nakhon (city municipalities), thesaban mueang (town municipalities) and thesaban tambon (sub-district municipalities). Both mayors and municipal councilors are elected. 

Municipal governments control large budgets; Nonthaburi municipality, for example, has the highest annual budget of any municipality at around 775 million baht. This makes the local elections hugely significant towards local policymaking. 

The municipal elections made clear a trend already observed at last year’s PAO elections: at the local level, machine politics and political dynasties still hold great sway even as Thailand’s national elections have become more ideologically-charged and policy-oriented. 

Several local big-names did well in the elections. In Nakhon Ratchasima, for example, former industry minister Prasert Boonchaisook won a mayoral seat. Prasert had previously run for a parliamentary seat in 2019 with the Chart Pattana party, which counts Nakhon Ratchasima as its power base, but the party had done poorly and won only one seat in the election last year. This year, however, the backing of local grandee Suwat Liptapanlop proved sufficient for Prasert to prevail. 

However, incumbents did not fare particularly well on election night. Thai media headlines about the election night lead with stories about “elephants” being toppled. 

Some were close shaves. In Rangsit, the five-term incumbent was defeated by only five votes. 

In Phetchaburi, the Pard group, which has successfully defended the mayoral seat in Petchaburi city for the past fifty years, lost an election for the first time. Other provinces where long-time incumbents lost seats include Samut Sakhon, Songkhla, Chaiyaphum and Tak. 

One particularly striking election result was in Buriram, the local power base of godfather and political kingmaker Newin Chidchob. The “Friends of Newin” group ended up losing a tight race for mayor, an unexpected result giving Bhumjaithai’s nickname as ‘Newinburi’. 

Another intriguing result was seen in Chiang Mai. Professor Nattakorn Vititanon had told BBC Thai that this was the first time a municipal election has seen candidates rely so heavily on national political parties. He speculated that this was the result of Pheu Thai’s victory in the PAO election last year, which showed that the party brand still has enduring attractiveness in the north. 

Yet this time, the powerful Buranupakorn clan successfully fended off the Pheu Thai challenge. This, along with results in other constituencies that showed party-linked candidates struggling, poses questions about whether overt partisanship in local races is more of a drag than a lift for candidates. 

Observers also once again waited to see how the Progressive Movement would fare. This time, expectations were tempered, given that the Progressive Movement lost every single PAO seat it contested last year. With only preliminary results in, it is impossible to say for certain how many seats the Progressive Movement won, but the signs point towards an underwhelming performance.

The group’s Facebook page has thanked voters for allowing its candidates to serve in “around ten” localities. (2,400 municipalities held elections this year.) 

The election terrain remains deeply unfavorable: the election once again precluded voting by mail or absentee voting, thus ensuring the Progressive Movement’s base of young voters who work in other provinces would find it difficult to participate. That has not stopped the group’s foes from gleefully pointing out a second poor result in a row, however; Democrat Party spokesman Ramate Ratanachaweng, for example, tweeted: “Landslide…wow!” 

A key question that will be raised for the Progressive Movement is whether or not local elections are the ideal arena for the group to contest. Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit blamed insufficient local campaigning and opposition from the state as reasons for the group’s lackluster performance in the PAO elections, while netizens blamed vote-buying (some noted that certain candidates were giving out up to 2,500 baht to voters.)

But it may also simply be the case that local elections — hugely expensive, locally-driven races — are a poor fit for an ideologically-guided group with a bigger focus on national platforms. Seeking new and relatively unknown candidates to take on the old machines is a noble undertaking on paper. Yet two elections in a row may have proven this too idealistic in practice. 

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