Five takeaways from the Bangkok elections

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Bangkok held its first local elections since 2013, with voters casting their ballots for Bangkok governor and the Bangkok Metropolitan Council.

Here are five takeaways from the results.

1. A convincing victory for Chadchart Sittipunt, Bangkok’s next governor 

The results of poll after poll left most with little doubt that Chadchart would emerge victorious on May 22nd. Yet the scale of his victory was still impressive: he captured over fifty percent of the vote, even against six other major contenders. In the process, he broke the record for the most votes ever received by a gubernatorial candidate in Bangkok.He also led in every single district, showing the evenness of his support throughout the capital. 

Chadchart’s win has been long in the making. He declared his candidacy two years ago and has been campaigning relentlessly, crafting over 200 policy proposals in the process. His status as an internet meme has also contributed to his popularity with younger voters. In addition, despite his independent status, his previous affiliation with Pheu Thai has allowed him to retain the support of a loyal voting bloc even as he managed to reach across the aisle to win over voters who would not have voted for him had he not shed his party label. Chadchart was also credited for running a positive campaign that did not engage in mud-slinging or fear-mongering. 

None of the other candidates came close to matching his support. Both Suchatvee Suwansawat of the Democrats and Wiroj Lakkanadisorn of the Move Forward Party ran neck and neck at around nine percent of the vote each, followed by former deputy governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul and former governor Aswin Kwanmuang. Former senator Rosana Tositrakul and Thai Sang Thai candidate Sita Divari rounded out the major candidates. 

2. Opposition parties capture the Bangkok Metropolitan Council 

In the final days of the campaign, a debate raged about how important it is that the governor have a loyal team of councilors in the Bangkok Metropolitan Council to help him pass his budget and back his policy priorities. Chadchart had argued that he is capable of working with anyone, while others argued that the governor would work most smoothly with councilors from their own party. Now that the results are in, however, it is evident that despite Chadchart’s lack of an official party, the BMC he works with will be filled with allies. As of the time of writing, opposition parties are on track to capture a majority of the BMC seats, with Pheu Thai in the lead at 19 seats and followed closely by the Move Forward Party at 15 seats. The new Thai Sang Thai party is also likely to win 3 seats. This would give the opposition parties 37 out of 50 seats in the BMC. 

The performance of all three parties raise interesting questions about their future. Pheu Thai underperformed Chadchart’s vote share considerably, demonstrating that Chadchart’s independent label was a clear factor in his success and that the party brand remains, to an extent, toxic in parts of Bangkok. Yet the clear anti-government sentiment bodes well for the party’s hopes for a ‘landslide’ at the next general election. Although Wiroj Lakkanadisorn, the Move Forward Party candidate, failed to garner the support necessary to win, the MFP exceeded his vote share in the race, showing that many Chadchart supporters cast their BMC vote for MFP. Thai Sang Thai won far more votes than its candidate, Sita Divari, showing there is a path forward for a party that many see as a Pheu Thai spinoff. 

3. The Democrats lose their champion status

The Democrat Party used to be the indisputable champion of Bangkok, but its strength has waned since 2019, when it failed to win a single parliamentary seat in the capital. The fortunes of the party were seen to be at an all-time low, as its candidate, Suchatvee Suwansawat, became embroiled in multiple scandals, while the party reputation suffered badly from sexual assault revelations about its former deputy leader, Prinn Panitchapakdi. On one hand, Suchatvee certainly underperformed his original hopes: as of the time of writing, he has won less than ten percent of the vote, where M.R. Sukhumband Paribatra won 47.5% in 2013. On the other hand, he also bested both Sakoltee Phattiyakul and Aswin Kwanmuang, even after his fading fortunes cast doubt on whether he could even pull that off. In the BMC, the Democrats also have mixed results. After a commanding performance in 2013, they won just 8 seats out of 50 this year. However, they also led every other pro-government group; Aswin’s Rak Khrung Thep group won only 2 seats, while Palang Pracharath won the same number. 

The party leader, Jurin Laksanawisit, will be able to claim that he has performed better than former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2019, since the Democrats were at least coming out on top in multiple districts. But uncomfortable questions will remain for him. Are the Democrats, the capital’s former champions, truly happy with coming in a distant second place to Chadchart? And with the loss of so many BMC seats, would their local networks in Bangkok not atrophy further? The result will be unlikely to settle the Democrats’ internal civil war between groups loyal to the current leader and groups who wish to see him pushed out. 

4. Soul searching for the conservative candidates 

The former deputy governor, Sakoltee Phattiyakul, surged in the last few weeks of the race, managing to overtake his former boss Aswin in the final result. This is attributable both to Aswin’s poor campaign and questions about his advancing age and also Sakoltee’s own strengths as a younger, more energetic and unabashedly conservative credentials. Yet for both candidates who once held the keys to City Hall, the result will be a disappointment. In particular, there is no way to interpret the result except as a repudiation of Aswin’s tenure. The former governor tried to promote his tenure as one of results and accomplishments, arguing that as a pragmatic doer, he should be given another term to complete his work. In the end, however, voters made it clear that they were looking for more radical change. Both ‘incumbents’ had a combined vote share of only slightly over 17 percent, making it clear that no amount of ‘strategic voting’ would have altered the final result. 

Palang Pracharath’s poor showing in the BMC race has unclear implications. The party did not run a gubernatorial candidate, and Aswin ran his own BMC team. This made it very difficult for the party to gain media attention, which likely contributed to its losses. Many of the party’s candidates made a last minute decision to officially back Sakoltee in the race, perhaps hoping to ride his coattails to victory, but in the end this did not provide a sufficient boost to their fortunes. For the party that had won the most seats in the 2019 general election, this may be a warning about its waning popularity. Yet its unclear direction in this race (compared to its clear stance as a vehicle for Prime Minister Prayut in a general election) makes it difficult to compare the two results. 

Overall, this will be a time of soul-searching for the pro-government coalition. The result was a clear expression of anti-government sentiment and a frustration with the status quo. As the commentator Kittitouch Chaiprasith wrote, “[The powers that be on the conservative side] must admit that you are no longer up to date with the world, that you cannot adapt to the war of ideas and information, and that you do not have sufficient ideas on development and dreams for the people of the future.” 

5. Sky-high hopes for Chadchart, but how long will the honeymoon period last? 

Chadchart will soon be sitting in City Hall, taking office as a popular governor who has campaigned on his positive vision. However, how long Chadchart’s honeymoon period will last is an open question. Aswin’s campaign suffered from the poor timing of the election — it coincided with the start of the Thai public school semester, which exacerbated the city’s traffic jams, and the onset of the monsoon season, which flooded the city’s streets — reminding voters of Bangkok’s seemingly irresolvable issues. These interminable problems will not go away with the election of a new governor, and majority that voted Chadchart in will be eager to see how he addresses them. The new governor will also have to make good on the 200 policies that he has publicly posted on his website, which he has noted is a contract with the people. Should Chadchart wish to run for a second term, voters will hope to see progress on priorities such as the environment, transportation and education.  

But Chadchart will run into many of the same problems that bedeviled his predecessors, such as a bloated and inefficient BMA bureaucracy and a limited budget, a good chunk already devoted to fixed costs. The new governor has refused to discuss how exactly he plans to spend the Bangkok budget, and whether all his policy priorities can be funded remains an open question. And despite the yearning for a less polarized, more constructive politics that fueled his rise, the country remains highly polarized, with many in the capital still viewing him with suspicion for his previous ties to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The current government, indeed, is unlikely to be delighted with his victory. Chadchart has come far with his independent label, but he will not be able to defy all of the laws that govern modern Thai politics.

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