Independent Candidates Redraw Thailand’s Political Makeup
Ruling junta’s allies buried in gubernatorial vote
Barring a not-unlikely attempt to disqualify him on a pretext of using unauthorized campaign posters, Chadchart Sittipunt, an independent candidate from the pro-democracy camp, is likely to become the next governor of Bangkok, possibly setting off a revolution in Thai politics after eight years of misrule by the deeply corrupt junta that took power in a military coup in 2014.
Chadchart, a 55-year-old civil engineer and former minister of transport in the Yingluck Shinawatra government from 2011 to 2014 who was briefly jailed after the coup, won in a landslide, gathered more than 50 percent of the vote among eight candidates and amassed 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.
The question is whether he will be allowed to take office. The junta, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, has systematically used captive courts to thwart other popular candidates including most recently 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 faces charges.
Although Chadchart ran as a nonpartisan, his father, mother and elder brother are Yellow Shirts, or royalists, and he himself is loosely affiliated with the Reds, the designation of parties aligned with the Shinawatra political powerhouse. Nonetheless, he was regarded as capable and neutral and cultivated a populist image. He is also well-liked by the millennial generation.
The governorship of Bangkok, by far Thailand’s biggest city with nearly 11 million people, automatically makes Chadchart a national figure in a country where the Yellow Shirt royalists have never found a leader who could replace Prem Tinsulanonda, the deeply respected figure who went from commanding the armed forces to becoming the king’s most influential adviser until he died at age 99 in 2019.
Chadchart has been joined by Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, the candidate of Move Forward, the renamed Future Forward Party, who finished just barely third in the voting after Suchatvee Suwansawat, the candidate of the Democrat Party, which has traditionally ruled Bangkok. Chadchart took a highly symbolic boat tour of the Lad Phrao Canal with Wiroj and newly-elected councilors from the Pheu Thai and Move Forward parties in a show of unity and an immediate demonstration of governing intentions by seeking to solve flood problems in the capital, which has been sinking for decades as groundwater is drawn down and is expected to be underwater from global warming and subsidence by 2040.
Not unlike Myanmar, the military and the oligarchy have traditionally set political boundaries for civilian rule and have restricted the power of elected governments through the judicial system, the constitutional court, and the election commission, all of which are fully controlled by the military and the Thai establishment and have little patience with millions of rural voters from the Isaan region. Since 1932, there have been 18 successful and unsuccessful coups as bureaucrats, generals, and businessmen have run most of the political parties.
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 Shinawatra, the billionaire former communications tycoon who has dominated politics from his perch in Dubai since he was ousted in a 2006 coup and later convicted of corruption charges, as was his popular sister Yingluck, who was forced to join him in exile after being convicted as well on charges that were regarded as yet another means to remove the family from power.
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.
Economic performance has been lackluster, partly because a major surge in Covid-19 cases severely slowed economic activity during the third quarter of 2021, with the economy contracting by 0.3 percent year-on-year according to the World Bank seasonally adjusted output falling by 1.1 percent from the second quarter following uninspiring growth in the first half of the year. The World Bank noted that “Thailand’s year-on-year contraction in Q3 was the third deepest among regional peers, after Vietnam (-6.2 percent) and Malaysia (-4.5 percent), while the Philippines and Indonesia registered strong growth.”
Private consumption declined, the bank said, and the consumption of durable goods was particularly weak. External demand also softened, and global supply-chain and logistics issues disrupted exports and imports of productive inputs.
Among other factors working in the opposition’s factor is Prayuth’s unpopularity, 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.
Even with the constitution rigged to keep the parliament in military hands, the chances for Pheu Thai – and Thaksin – are starting to look hopeful. It would need a parliamentary majority of more than 375 constituency MPs as 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 can’t garner 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.