Don’t overlook the Bangkok Metropolitan Council elections

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With only a few more days to go before the Bangkok gubernatorial election, the candidates for governor have, understandably, monopolized media attention and public interest. These candidates, after all, are the heavy-hitters — the big names who are running to be the city’s chief executive. 

Of comparatively little interest is the down-ballot race (or, to be accurate, the pink ballot race, as they are to be voted for on pink ballots separate from the governor ballot): the Bangkok Metropolitan Council election. This year, the assembly is being voted for on the same date as the Bangkok governor, leading to a chaotic cacophony of election posters screaming for attention all around Bangkok. 

But despite the relative lack of media interest, the BMC election is hardly something voters should overlook. The Bangkok Metropolitan Council serves as the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s legislature. They are to the Bangkok governor what parliament is to the prime minister. The councilors play a key role in how Bangkok is run, and it’s worth taking some time to understand what they do so that you can make an informed choice on election day. 

The BMC councilors play four key roles. Firstly, they have the authority to consider and approve the BMA’s budget. They can amend the BMA budget as they see fit. This makes it crucial for the Bangkok governor to have allies in the BMC, or at the very least to have a bloc of sufficiently friendly legislators who can be persuaded to back the governor’s proposed budget so that their priorities will be funded. The BMC can also pass local regulations and ordinances for Bangkok. 

Secondly, they scrutinize the performance of the governor and the BMA bureaucracy. This is done via general debate, questioning the governor, and passing motions within the council. The BMC contains eleven different committees that scrutinize the different aspects of running Bangkok. Whether the BMC will act as a rubber stamp or a real counterweight to the governor will depend heavily on its makeup and their political position vis-a-vis the new governor. An adversarial BMC could find various ways to make life more unpleasant for the governor. 

Third, the BMC members act informally as problem-solvers within their local areas. Each district used to elect its own council, who officially were charged with advising the district administrator but they often involved themselves with various local affairs and troubleshooting. In 2018, however, the district councils were abolished; as such, the BMC member elected by each district will be the sole elected representative of each district. Many of the gubernatorial candidates have made it clear that they consider the BMC candidates part of their “team” who act as their eyes and ears in seeking out local problems and helping them understand each district’s unique issues. 

All of this makes it clear that the BMC cannot be overlooked on election day. Without a friendly BMC, the governor is as good as defanged; they can be hampered in several ways.

In the past, this has rarely been an issue. At the last BMC election, the Democrats won a hefty majority in the BMC, and with Democrat M.R. Sukhumband Paribatra in City Hall, there was little daylight between them. Now, however, with such a large field of candidates running — several as independents without an obvious team of allies in the BMC — it has become far more possible that there will be a “hung parliament” with no obvious dominating faction. Today’s heightened political polarization and the seeping of political division down to the local level also raises question about whether the BMC and the governor can work together in an amicable fashion. 

Indeed, the BMC elections may in a certain sense be even more nationalized than the gubernatorial election is, given that more national parties are fielding candidates in that race than for governor. Parties such as Pheu Thai, Palang Pracharath, Bhumjaithai, Seri Ruam Thai, KLA and Ruam Thai United do not have anyone on the governor’s ballot. But they are all fielding candidates for the BMC. Meanwhile, the Democrats, Move Forward and Thai Sang Thai have candidates on both ballots. 

Even a candidate like Chadchart Sittipunt, who is trying to escape the national political divide has found it ultimately impossible to brush off the perception that he is aligned with the Pheu Thai Party’s BMC candidates. A Pheu Thai BMC candidate, for example, began using green as her color scheme — the same as Chadchart’s — which threw a wrench into his vigorous denials of an unofficial alliance between his independent candidacy and his former party.

All of these dynamics make it important that voters also give careful thought to who they will cast their pink ballot vote for on May 22nd. How much does national politics matter in this race? Do they wish to see a unified Bangkok city government with governor and council working seamlessly together to pass their agenda? Do they want to see a more aggressive city council that will act as a counterweight to the new agenda? Or, perhaps, local ties and consistent constituent service matter above all?

This is the choice that Bangkok’s voters must make — and, hopefully, they will pay sufficient attention to this important race to make a careful one. 

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