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Bangkok Governor-elect to Walk Political Tightrope
Junta deemed likely to seek to attempt to disqualify him
The decision by Thailand’s military to not use a thin pretext to disqualify Chadchart Sittipunt, the pro-democracy candidate who won the Bangkok governorship in a landslide last week, doesn’t mean Chadchart is home free. Pressure is likely to continue to find reasons to disqualify him, sources in Bangkok say.
The junta “will surely try to disqualify or undermine him during his long tenure,” said a Bangkok-based political figure. “We also don’t know what the palace is thinking. The royalty will certainly not treat him kindly. He survives unscathed because of his landslide victory.”
The election, held on May 22, was the first in nine years. The junta dismissed the popular Sukhumband Paribatra in 2016 and hasn’t allowed polls until now, governing via an appointed army officer.. The victory by the 55-year-old civil engineer and former minister of transport in the Pheu Thai government is considered to have set off a political revolution after eight years in which the junta ousted a democratically elected national government in 2014 and has kept a tight grip on power. There seems an element at least of a youth revolution, with 1 million millennials, who now make up the largest proportion of qualified voters in Bangkok. Roughly 700,000 are young first-time voters aged 18-27.
That helped Chadchart and his allies to gather more than 50 percent of the vote among eight candidates and amass 1,386,215 votes, with his nearest competitor far behind with only 254,723. Chadchart also humiliated the junta’s appointed candidate, Police General Aswin Kwanmuang, who received about 210,000 votes.
But, observers say, the only factor that allowed Chadchart to take office is that the magnitude of his win has intimidated the junta, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, which has systematically used captive courts to thwart other popular candidates.
Most recently that included Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the wealthy leader of the youth-oriented Future Forward Party, which was ordered dissolved despite winning more than 6 million votes in national elections after a court ruled a loan he made to the party was an illegal donation. Future Forward was forced to reconstitute itself as Move Forward and Thanathorn, who led a similar youth revolution, faces lese majeste charges. Chadchart was accused of breaking election laws by offering gifts to voters by designing election posters that could be recycled into bags and aprons. In the end, the Election Commission backed down and didn’t charge him with an offense although it is said to be still investigating.
“If they go continue to ahead with this [to use another pretext to get rid of Chadchart], it will be an unmitigated disaster,” said an observer with a western NGO in Bangkok. “This is where we see how stupid, and obtuse and undemocratic the conservative elites in this country really are. I tend to think that even they will recognize they cannot mess with such a landslide win, but let's not forget that the likes of Prayuth and Prawit call murderous Burmese coup leader Min Aung Hlaing a friend.”
Since telecommunications mogul Thaksin Shinawatra upended the political system in 2001 and became prime minister, the military and Bangkok’s elites have been consumed with getting rid of him despite the enormous popularity he earned through populist social programs built to benefit the country’s millions of rural poor.
Although he was deposed in a 2006 coup and driven into exile, Thaksin remains phenomenally popular. To thwart him the powers that be have used the country’s supine courts to overthrow a series of surrogate governments. From 2020 through 2014, the junta and royalist Yellow Shirt faction fomented continuing political violence that was used to drive Thaksin’s sister Yingluck from power and eventually into exile via court action that convicted her of corruption, as the courts had against Thaksin himself.
Although Chadchart ran as a nonpartisan after spending several years distancing himself from the Pheu Thai Party that served as Thaksin’s surrogate, the elites believe he is a Pheu Thai stalking-horse seeking electoral victory in national polls in a subterfuge to win overwhelmingly in the next national election scheduled for no later than 2023 when Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha’s term ends, and to pave the way to bring Thaksin himself, now 74, back to the country.
The governorship of Bangkok, by far Thailand’s biggest city with nearly 11 million people, automatically makes Chadchart a national figure. He has been joined by Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, the candidate of the renamed Move Forward, who finished just barely third in the voting after Suchatvee Suwansawat, the candidate of the Democrat Party, which has traditionally ruled Bangkok.
Although Chadchart is ostensibly nonpartisan, the question is whether he will stay that way, or if – given his previous association with Pheu Thai – he will emerge as yet another surrogate figure for Thaksin, who remains in Dubai but who maintains extensive communications with his forces in Thailand. For instance, Thaksin’s youngest daughter Paetongtarn was recently appointed Pheu Thai’s chief adviser on participation and innovation and was named the head of the newly created “Pheu Thai Family,” making her a potential prime ministerial candidate.
The factor that might allow electoral politics to survive is that sympathy for authoritarianism is at a low point after eight years of thinly disguised military rule under Prayuth, which has been riddled with corruption that the military hardly bothered to disguise. The Bangkok election was the first allowed since the 2014 coup. Prayuth is unpopular even among his own troops, with Palang Pracharat, the main government party, split and may abandon him should he face a no-confidence debate to be tabled by the opposition in late May. Palang Pracharat Party’s approval rating has fallen below 10 percent and many coalition partners are weary of their alliance with him, severely testing Prayuth’s hopes for political survival.
For the opposition to win back parliament, however, it would take more than a landslide. The junta, in a constitutional revision some years ago, rigged the parliament so the opposition would need a majority of more than 375 constituency MPs. All 250 senators are nominated by the military and are bound to vote for Prayuth or a nominee chosen by the military. As Pheu Thai would find it impossible to find 375 MPs, it would have to put together a coalition of pro-democracy parties such as MFP, STP, Seri Ruam Thai Party, Prachachart Party, Pheu Chat Party, and even those parties which have no basic principles but only act on expediency such as Chat Thai Pattana Party, Chat Pattana Party and Bhumjaithai Party in order to pull it off.