Chadchart Sittipunt’s landslide victory in the gubernatorial election captured the media's attention, but the battle for the City Councilor seats may turn out to have even greater implications for national politics, observers say.
Prachatai English asked politicians from the Pheu Thai, Democrat and Move Forward parties to explain the impacts of the 22 May ballot on Thailand’s major parties as they head for a collision in the next poll – widely anticipated to take place later this year.
A file photo of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Image: Chanakarn Laosarakham / iLaw
One of the most talked about aspects of last week’s election was its significance for an election that has yet to take place.
As former transport minister Chadchart Sittipunt, 56, sailed into office as the next Governor of Bangkok with a record vote tally of 1.3 million under his belt, social media was already abuzz with discussions about how much Chadchart’s victory would redraw the electoral map when the next general elections are held.
The current Parliament session is set to expire by early next year, though many pundits expect PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, who’s been in power since the 2014 coup, to call a new election before year’s end.
While Chadchart’s performance in the 22 May poll is rightfully headline-grabbing, analysts say that the national poll – when it occurs – will likely be more affected by the results of the 50-seat City Councilors election, as the councilors command a more intimate influence over local communities. To a certain degree, they also have more potential to swing voters toward their party line.
The City Councilors were elected on the same day as the Governor. The opposition parties won a clear majority, with 19 and 14 seats out of 50 going to Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties, respectively. Coalition member Democrat Party, long thought to be Bangkok’s favorite, secured 9 seats, while the ruling Palang Pracharath Party won only 2.
Thai Sang Thai – a breakaway party of Pheu Thai – and the pro-establishment Rak Krung Thep Group also gained 2 seats each. The remaining 2 seats went to independent candidates.
To get a clearer picture of what those results imply, Prachatai English talked with politicians from the three major parties with the largest takeaways on 22 May, and a prominent political scientist with an expertise in electoral outcomes.
This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Does the outcome of the Bangkok gubernatorial elections signify public discontent with the Prayut administration?
Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee
Political scientist, Chulalongkorn University
It’s not inaccurate to say that it does reflect a significant anti-government sentiment, because the new Governor-Elect is from the opposition faction, which insists on winning offices through election and democratic means. Three parties that oppose the government also secured more than half – 36 out of 50 – of all City Council seats. They have also formally announced their commitment to work together and support each other.
However, there are several things that should be taken into consideration.
Chadchart’s victory is mostly the result of personal talent and personality. That is why he could pull about 300,000 votes away from candidates of other parties. But this portion of votes remains volatile, and can always swing back to its original base.
On the one hand, it shows that if you field a candidate who is perceived to have a decent personality, ability, vision, leadership capabilities, and respect, a united front can be built between the opposition and progressive-leaning conservatives who used to support the government.
On the other hand, we cannot be too optimistic, because a candidate of such caliber cannot be found easily, whether from the opposition or the government sides. This election might very well turn out to be a one-time exception.
Pheu Thai MP and former City Councilor
I think we must acknowledge that voters’ decisions in choosing their City Councilors was influenced by their perception of the government. I think it really played a role. We could see that parties belonging to the coalition only won 11 seats. In my opinion, it reflects the falling popularity of the government, especially the Democrat Party. Just 7-8 years ago, the Democrats used to have a majority in the City Council. But in this election, they only got 9 seats. For me, that’s quite a low figure.
First-time City Councilor, Move Forward Party
I think it does reflect the public’s mood toward the government, to an extent. In this past election, party ideologies mattered a lot, even in choosing the City Councilors. We may be used to the idea that City Councilors are chosen based on the candidates. But this election coincided with the gubernatorial vote, so party lines played a significant role. Look at the performance of the Palang Pracharath Party: they really took a hit in their popularity.
However, I must note here that this assessment may not always apply across the boards. Each district is also different. Some were won by party positions, some by the candidates, and some by both. Speaking as someone who ran in the election, I can see so many differences from one district to the next. The strategies that helped me win in Bang Sue may not lead to success in other districts.
Democrat Party deputy chairman and former City Councilor.
Speaking from my 30-year experience in politics, when it comes to Bangkok local elections, many Bangkokians by nature tend to vote for candidates who do not belong to the ruling parties at the time. This was the case for former Governors like Apirak Kosayodhin and Sukhumbhand Paribatra. Both of them won elections back then because they were from opposition parties.
This practice coincides with another phenomenon - the desire many voters have to express their opposition to the current government. This is my personal opinion but this sentiment certainly played a part – but probably not entirely. I think many voters also chose opposition candidates because of their trust in individual candidates, their policies, and other factors.
Q: Which party had the biggest gains and which had the biggest losses?
Siripan: The public definitely gained the most because they now have a Governor that comes from an election. It’s a return to choosing local administrators by democratic means. [Note: Chadchart’s predecessor, Aswin Kwanmuang, was appointed by the ruling junta in 2016.]
In terms of politics, it can be said that Pheu Thai had the biggest success in the City Councilors race, having won the most seats, 20. It’s the highest proportion they have taken when compared to previous City Councilors elections. They also defeated Thai Sang Thai in some districts that were thought to be firmly in control of the party’s founder, Sudarat Keyuraphan.
Move Forward, which won the second biggest number of City Councilor seats, also managed to maintain its voting base, which amounted to about 400,000 to 600,000 votes in Bangkok. How this will translate into the number of MPs is unclear, however, since constituencies for MPs are smaller than City Councilor voting districts.
The most devastating losses were suffered by Palang Pracharath, which went from receiving 790,000 votes in the 2019 general elections to just 270,000 votes, and only 2 seats on the City Councilors. This will demoralize the party rank and file. Some potential candidates may hesitate when thinking about their futures and end up looking for new parties.
Although the number of Democrat Party seats fell from what they had after the 2010 local election, their proportions of votes remained roughly the same, compared to the general elections in 2019.
Pradermchai: Palang Pracharath seems to have performed very badly. They had the highest number of MPs in Bangkok after the 2019 elections, yet they only secured 2 City Council seats in the districts of Din Daeng and Nong Chok.
I think Palang Pracharath’s performance will definitely affect its chances in the national elections. If I were an executive of their party, I’d call for a serious evaluation of what happened.
Ongart: Frankly speaking, I thought that we’d win more seats. But based on our assessment, it had more to do with local factors and less to do with influences from national politics. When you look at the districts that we didn’t win, we came in second in many of them. Seven districts, to be precise.
Why did the Democrat Party lose in those 7 districts? It’s because many of their candidates and veteran politicians were snapped up by other parties. The votes went with them. For example, in Yannawa district, Move Forward won 9,000 votes against Democrat Party’s 7,000, followed by Kla Party, at 5,000. Kla Party’s candidate was actually an ex-Democrat. Had that person still run on the Democrat’s ticket, the results would likely have been different.
So no, I don’t think the Democrat Party’s popularity in Bangkok has taken a dip at all.
But speaking in terms of the most passionate voter base, for this election, it has to be Move Forward. A majority of people who voted for Move Forward did so out of their commitment to the party. Regardless of who was fielded as a candidate, they still voted for Move Forward; it had nothing to do with the individual candidates.
Q: How much will City Councilors improve the chance of their parties in the general elections?
Siripan: I can only give my assessment specific to the Bangkok region:
Firstly, Bangkok will no longer be a battleground for just Pheu Thai and Democrats. Move Forward has firmly established itself as a major competitor. It won’t go away any time soon. Thai Sang Thai’s potential can not be ruled out either, because it still won 10 percent of the votes in this past election.
Secondly, Palang Pracharath’s drop in popularity in the capital is very real.
Finally, many more parties will join the fray when the general elections hit, including parties that do not necessarily command a large base in Bangkok, like Bhumjaithai and Chart Thai Pattana. The dynamics of the race will be different. The new competitors will need to learn from this election about competing for voters in the same basket. We may see newer parties that do not have sufficient resources and capability on their own merging together.
Pattraporn: I think that City Councilors will have a big impact on the chances of their respective parties in the next poll, certainly. Having a City Councilor means that your party will have a more comprehensive understanding of local districts. Like in my case, if my party wants to field a candidate for MP, I’ll be able to give them advice on where to go, what to talk about, and what the biggest concerns and issues for people in the district are.
The candidates will have all the information they need to set their agendas. They won’t have to start from zero.
Ongart: There will be an impact. It won’t be everything, but it will still have some consequences. For example, if the City Councilor in a certain district performs well in their work and manages to impress local residents, it might also lead to a positive effect for candidates from the same party running for MP in that district.
Pradermchai: Having City Councilors who are allied to you can make your vote canvassing and activities easier in those districts. But will it play a decisive role? No, it won’t. You can see this from previous elections. Many parties may have their City Councilors in a lot of districts, but when it comes to electing MPs, their candidates haven’t always won the same districts.
I think voters will consider the situation unfolding prior to election day. That will be a much bigger factor than City Councilors.