Opinion: Bangkok deserves a fresh battle of ideas and a gubernatorial election

The past year has seen a steady stream of local elections: the Provincial Administrative Organization elections last December, municipal elections in March, and the Tambon Administrative Organization elections due soon. 

There remains, however, a glaring absence: there is still no date scheduled for the election that will decide Bangkok’s next governor. 

The delay has become extraordinary.

Indeed, the campaign of former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt has become emblematic of this. He announced his bid for the office in November 2019. Two years later, we still have no idea when the government will finally permit Bangkokians to go to the polls. It has been so long, in fact, that Chadchart’s Better Bangkok campaign has stopped posting on Facebook entirely, and the link to his campaign’s website no longer works! 

Why the government has refused to hold this election is attributable to a number of reasons. The ongoing pandemic was always going to be a possible excuse. Just as plausibly, some analysts note that the government is unlikely to schedule it until it is confident that a candidate it is comfortable with will do well. Until very recently it was assumed that this candidate would be Police General Chakthip Chaijinda, until his public withdrawal from the race a few weeks ago. 

Now, speculation is aflutter on whether the government’s power brokers will support the incumbent, Governor Aswin Kwanmuang, for another term. Or, it is rumored, the ruling Palang Pracharath party may instead swing its backing to a new candidate such as Narongsak Osottanakorn, the Pathum Thani governor who made his name commanding the world-famous cave rescue operation in 2018.

But regardless of whether the government is ready, it will soon run out of road on delaying this gubernatorial race. After the TAO elections this month, there will be a minimum 120-day delay before more local elections will be held. Only the Bangkok local elections are left. Thus, it is possible that a poll date will be scheduled for early next year, perhaps in February or March. 

Bangkok, therefore, will be allowed to hold a contest of ideas once again. Almost nine years since the last election, this is long overdue. 

It would be unfair to say that Bangkok has not made any progress under Governor Aswin. His stewardship of the city has led to the opening of new (and sorely needed) public parks, the expansion of public transportation routes, the building of new water banks and the placement underground of some of the city’s electric wiring (which perhaps function as both an eyesore and an attraction.) 

But regardless of his performance, should he run again, the people of Bangkok deserve to have a referendum on his tenure. It cannot be denied that he was undemocratically appointed, after the last elected governor, M.R. Sukhumband Paribatra, was removed in 2016. Whether Aswin continues in the office is a matter that must be decided by the people of Bangkok.

It is also crucial that this election leads to a fresh airing of new policies. Take the environment and climate change mitigation. The commentariat has understandably come to a consensus that Thailand was underwhelming at best at COP26, making few commitments that matched Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s lofty rhetoric. Indeed, the biggest sensation to come out of the prime minister’s performance there was probably debate about whether he intentionally plagiarized Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon when he said there is “no plan B” and “no planet B.”

Perhaps it would also be beneficial if the prime minister were to mention that at this moment, there is also no viable capital city B for Thailand. Our country will not escape the consequences of climate change — and almost certainly not our capital. Bangkok, facing both coastal erosion and rising sea levels, is widely known to be at increased risk of inundation and flooding. Yet despite the risk posed to this metropolis of millions, there seems to be precious little public discussion of a serious government response.

This makes it crucial for climate change mitigation to be a key part of this upcoming gubernatorial election. It is heartening to see King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang rector Suchatchavee Suwansawas, who is rumored to be the Democrat Party’s candidate, already discussing this issue with recent proposals for short, medium and long term solutions. Chadchart, with his engineering background and forward-looking mindset, is also unlikely to be one to shy from this challenge. 

It is, of course, entirely possible that Bangkok may not get to witness a very substantive policy debate. The current atmosphere in national politics is so charged that tribalism will likely triumph over any real discussion of policy merits. But at the very least, this will be one of the first airing of competing visions on a large scale, in a genuinely competitive election, since 2019. That much, at least, is worth being excited for. 

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