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Governor status quo leaves city as microcosm of nation

Governor status quo leaves city as microcosm of nation

Published: Bangkok Post  6/03/2013 at 12:00 AM

Newspaper section: News

The resulting and relative status quo that emerged from Bangkok's gubernatorial polls on Sunday bears cold implications for the national political landscape and the future of City Hall politics.

Smaller and independent players fared poorly whereas the two leading candidates with party machines behind them garnered enough votes for there to be positive takeaways for both sides. The governor results have added to the duality between Bangkok and the rest of the country because national politics became decisive in Bangkok's poll outcome.

Bangkok politics have become Thai politics. It used to be different. For example, in 2004, the Democrat Party won the governor contest only to lose in national constituency elections in 2005, when then-Thai Rak Thai party nabbed 32 of 37 MP spots. Independents also used to win City Hall handily.

Thus Bangkok is now a microcosm of larger forces in national contests over the past several years. Even voting patterns on Sunday tracked the last national poll, with the north and northeast suburbs largely choosing Pheu Thai and the rest of the districts mostly going for the Democrat Party.

First and foremost, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra's second term indicates that Thailand remains divided with its capital at the core of divisions.

In the home stretch, the Democrats succeeded with campaign ads that reminded Bangkokians of the burning of their capital in May 2010. This negative campaigning ultimately produced the highest gubernatorial voter turnout (about 64%) since direct elections were first held in 1985. The unseasonal rain on Sunday in most parts of the capital renders this turnout more remarkable.

Based on numbers from the last governor election in 2009, when turnout was just over 50%, almost 600,000 more voters went to the polls this time. They opted for the Democrat and Pheu Thai candidates at the expense of independents, who used to dominate City Hall politics in the 1990s.

The also-rans have never done so poorly. The votes for the third-placed candidate were halved compared to 2004, 2008 and 2009. Fourth place received fewer than 100,000 votes, well below candidates in similar positions in previous polls.

The near-term future of independents is dim. But the gravitation in Bangkok towards the two main political parties is unsurprising as the capital has been the arena of national political divisions.

For MR Sukhumbhand, his numbers went up but his share of the total vote is steady, from 45.47% in 2009 to 46.3% on Sunday. His opponent Pongsapat Pongcharoen gained far more from the greater voter turnout than he did. Pheu Thai's vote share rose from 29% in 2009, when it ran as the People's Power Party, to 39%. Despite MR Sukhumbhand's victory, Bangkok's electoral ground is not shifting in the Democrat Party's favour.

It augurs well for the Democrats to retain City Hall because a defeat would make them even more insecure and desperate, setting up a likely landslide loss in the next national polls, due in 2015.

Now, the Democrats can take some comfort and reassurance that Bangkokians have not abandoned them. Thailand also steers away from a near-complete Pheu Thai political dominance. Some balance in the political system endures.

The downside is that the outcome may make the Democrats complacent and further put off the house-cleaning and new leadership that they require to have a chance in the next national polls.

The Democrat victory even bodes well for Pheu Thai and the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and Thaksin from afar. It should remind them that Bangkokians still largely oppose them, that they still have much to do.

Above all, MR Sukhumbhand's re-election keeps Pheu Thai from becoming a political juggernaut. The last time Thailand had such a juggernaut under Thai Rak Thai, it engendered abuses of power and enemies that ultimately deposed the machine. To this extent, the status quo is good for both parties.

On an individual basis, this was the first electoral defeat for Ms Yingluck. Thaksin's party machine and latent appeal carried her to office.

While she did not really have to run in the electoral arena, Ms Yingluck put much of her own popularity on the line in support of Pol Gen Pongsapat. It produced more votes than the party's results in 2009 but not enough to win. Instead of departing on a European tour in an electoral flourish, Ms Yingluck appeared visibly disappointed at Pol Gen Pongsapat's concession speech in front of the media. It will be telling how she deals with her relative first electoral loss.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat leader, also had much on the line as party elders echoed wider calls for a leadership change if MR Sukhumbhand were to lose.

The Sukhumbhand candidacy fortuitously gave Mr Abhisit a new lease on life, a referendum on his leadership when it should have been considered long ago when he led the party to two national election losses dating to December 2007.

Until the Democrat Party is profoundly revamped, Pheu Thai is likely to win national polls indefinitely, certainly the next round in 2015, barring unforeseen circumstances.

An equally big winner from Sunday is the Bangkok voter. Most polls showed Pol Gen Pongsapat ahead throughout the race. Regulators fretted that polls were misleading voters and tried to limit them. In the end, voters disregarded the polls and showed that they were smarter and more informed than election commissioners gave them credit for. So let the pollsters operate and weed themselves out through the outcome and let voters decide the rest.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.



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