A flagship election in Bangkok — BenarNews
On May 22, Bangkok citizens elected a new governor: Chadchart Sittipunt, an independent candidate and a former minister in Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, who was ousted in a 2014 military coup.
The election was remarkable for several reasons.
Chadchart running on a progressive platform, won outstanding 51 percent of the votes. He received 1.38 million votes, winning more than 50 percent of the vote in each of Bangkok’s 50 constituencies.
The election was an important harbinger of national elections, which must be held by March 2023.
Police Gen. Aswin Kwanmuang, the incumbent government appointed to the post by the junta in 2016, had both the authority and backing of the military-backed government.
He was humiliated, finishing fifth with just 8 percent of the vote. Aswin had replaced a popular, twice-elected leader, Sukumbhand Paribatra, and was blamed by Bangkok citizens for failing to address the city’s many problems. Aswin resigned in March to contest the election but was still considered incumbent.
In a sign of national sentiment, results for Chadchart were better than predicted and worse for Aswin. in the opinion poll a week before the election, Chadchart was around 40 percent support, and Aswin was third with 14 percent support.
But Aswin’s loss likely means bigger problems for the Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), the military’s political vehicle. The economy has continued to falter despite the country’s reopening to tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic has been far more costly to Thailand economically than medically. Thailand’s excellent medical system and public health administration have succeeded where politicians have failed.
According to an annual Credit Suisse survey, the pandemic exacerbated the country’s huge income inequality, which is already among the highest in the world. This inequality increased during the pandemic in an economy based on tourism and exports.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha tried to put on a brave face, claiming it was an election in “just one province” that “reflects nothing on me”. But that’s ridiculous.
11 million of the country’s 70 million inhabitants live in Bangkok. That 16 percent of the population, which accounts for 25 percent of the country’s GDP, receives 75 percent of government spending. If that is not the power of the incumbent, then what is?
Chadchart’s victory does not bode well for the government for another reason. Chadchart and two other progressive candidates combined received two-thirds of the vote.
Obviously, the people of Bangkok are looking for fresh faces and new ideas, tired from the military’s eight-year tenure of incompetence and corruption.
signs of things to come
It is also very clear that the establishment – the military, its political arm and ultra-royalist supporters – are unhappy and concerned with the election results.
It was no surprise that an ultra-royalist, Srisuwan Janya, the secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, immediately challenged the election results with allegations of vote-buying. The accusation is absolutely absurd.
Nevertheless, on May 31, the Bangkok Electoral Commission reviewed the vote. Chadchart is everything that scares the old guard: young, progressive, charismatic, popular, and with ties to the Shinawatras. He poses a threat to 8 years of regressive policies.
All of this begs the bigger question: How will the military try to steal the 2023 election?
After all, they are very unpopular.
In opinion polls conducted by the National Institute of Democratic Administration (NIDA), the PPRP has seen a loss of more than 50 percent of its support since the beginning of 2020, from 17 percent to 8 percent in April 2022.
In that time, Pheu Thai’s support has increased from 20 percent to 25 percent, on a steady upward trajectory. And while Future Forward has seen a sharp decline since the beginning of 2020, they have shown steady growth in opinion polls over the past half year.
Support for Prayut as prime minister fell from nearly 30 percent to around 13 percent over the same period, according to NIDA. Prayuth is clearly a liability, and even high-ranking PPRP officials such as Prawit Wongsuwan and Anupong Paochinda have publicly considered jettisoning Prayuth.
And while Prayuth can be viewed as voter liability, the problem for the PPRP is that it has no one of national appeal or recognition other than Prawit and Anupong, who are themselves elderly and highly unpopular.
If anyone thinks I’m being too cynical, consider these facts: Would Prayuth be prime minister if it weren’t for a military-drafted constitution that weakened major political parties, rigged to weaken opposition and mis-allocate votes?
Would he be prime minister if it weren’t for the same constitution that installed the Electoral Commission to dissolve political opposition parties, used an armed judiciary to charge opposition figures with a range of charges, appointed a Senate, silenced opponents with lese-majeste charges, and a party-list system established that disadvantages the largest political party?
Under Westminster Rules, the largest vote collector has the right to try to form a government; that was not even on offer at Pheu Thai in 2019.
The legal proceedings against the opposition continue unabated. In April 2022, a court indicted Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit Lèse-Majesté, the harsh anti-royal defamation law, for his concerns about an inexperienced royally-owned company making COVID-19 vaccines. And the government is pushing ahead with its controversial measures NGO bill it could silence any criticism of government policy.
We’ve noticed a slight shift in PPRP tactics. Having drafted a constitution to weaken major parties, the PPRP seems to have given it some thought as it is the second largest party and will never lack resources. More importantly, since 2019 she has faced the challenge of governing a fractious coalition government of tiny parties.
In September 2021, Parliament passed an amendment to change the electoral system that could favor larger parties, including the PPRP, as well as the opposition Pheu Thai Party.
The amendment would create a two-ballot system, with voters choosing candidates in single-seat constituencies, and a second ballot to vote for a political party.
The number of MPs to be directly elected would increase by 50 to 400, while the number of members to be elected by proportional representation would decrease by 50 to 100.
That’s unlikely enough for the military to remain in power while the populace continues to seek new faces to move the country forward. But if the government disqualifies these new faces, it faces another round of deep-seated political unrest.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the US Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.