Analysis: Sukhumbhand’s Bangkok election win a new chance for Thai Democrats

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 4, 2013

The election victory of incumbent Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra is good news for the Democrat Party, but is it good news from Bangkok? asks Saksith Saiyasombut.

Shortly after voting ended at 3pm on Sunday, all the exit polls projected a victory for the main challenger, Pongsapat Pongcharoen of the Pheu Thai Party (PT), signaling an electoral watershed moment in the relatively young history of Bangkok gubernatorial elections. If the polls had been correct, it would have been PT’s first victory in the Thai capital.

But as the actual votes were being counted throughout the afternoon, it became more and more obvious that incumbent Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra and the Democrat Party were going to hold one their last electoral bastions, despite his many critics, who spoke of him being a reluctant pick by his party, lacking charisma, and lacking fire at his campaign events.

“Real men wait for the real results,” said Sukhumband of the exit polls. In fact, history had a lesson to teach. The gubernatorial elections of 2009 and 2004 were won by his party after the exit polls predicted defeat.

Bangkok Gubernatorial Elections 2013 – Unofficial Results (100% in)

1. Sukhumbhand Paribatra (Democrat Party – No. 16): 1,256,231 votes / 46.23%
2. Pongsapat Pongcharoen (Pheu Thai Party – 9): 1,077,899 / 39.69%
3. Seripisut Temiyavet (Independent – 11): 166,582 / 6.13%
4. Suharit Siamwalla (Independent – 17): 78,825 / 2.90%
5. Kosit Suwinijjit (Independent – 10): 28,640 / 1.05%
-. Others: 20,058

Total votes: 2,715,640
Eligible voters: 4,244,465
Voter turnout: 63.98%

Source: Bangkok Metropolitan Authority / Election Commission Thailand

As soon as Sukhumbhand passed the mark of 1 million votes shortly after 6pm, the gap had become too much for a Pongsapat comeback. Pongsapat had a good, media-savy campaign. He was also careful not to mention Thaksin, as he would have startled his political enemies and potentially have scared away undecided voters – the violence and carnage of the crackdown on the anti-government red shirts protests of 2010 is still being blamed on them and the former prime minister, something the Democrat Party would remind again and again.

Pongsapat tried to present himself as a new fresh face for the city, but it was not enough. So it was just a matter of minutes until he addressed the press and his supporters with prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and conceded. Both were gracious enough in their defeat to congratulate Sukhumbhand and pledged to work together with the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA). Shortly after that in his victory speech, Sukhumbhand repeated this notion and also reached out to all those who didn’t vote for him.

But while Sukhumband broke the record for most popular votes in a Bangkok gubernatorial election (overtaking the late Samak Sundaravej’s victory in 2000) and the voter turnout was substantially higher (62.2% compared to 51% in 2009) does not change much in the Thai capital. Although about 12 million people call this city their home, only about 5 million are actually registered to vote here. Only 4.2 million were eligible to vote and to decide the future of Bangkok for the other two-thirds.

Bangkok may be the only province where its people can elect their governor, but the question remains how much power the BMA actually has to improve the quality of life, given its limited annual budget (reportedly only $2bn and with majority already covering running costs), which is overlooked by the Interior Ministry. Many of the issues that concern the BMA clash with the powers of national ministries. Whether it is dangling power poles to be buried underground, the prices on municipal busses, the various public transport systems, or competencies over flood prevention measures – all these fall under federal authority, despite the lofty campaign promises by all candidates (“Monorail”, anyone?).

This local election highlights the central role Bangkok plays in Thailand. And while the ongoing political divide played a lesser role in this campaign, the discrepancies between the capital and the rest of the country still exist. Given how that most residents are seemingly registered elsewhere, the stakeholders need to look beyond the city again.

While Sunday’s defeat is not a disaster for the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it should not exploit its position to block or overrule the BMA at the cost of the city.  This is the chance for cooperation and co-existence.

Governor Sukhumbhand is the unlikely winner of the election, considering various failures during his last term – conflicts during the floods of 2011 and ending at the Futsal arena fiasco. Sukhumbhand has been given a second chance to rule the capital, but for the Democrat Party it is the very last chance.

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