Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party is on course to win Bangkok’s governor election for the first time, dealing a blow to opponents aligned with royalist groups who have held the capital since 2004.
Pongsapat Pongcharoen, a former deputy police commissioner, is leading in polls for the March 3 election to run the city of about 7 million people. He is challenging Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a member of the opposition Democrat Party and a great-grandson of former King Chulalongkorn.
A ruling party victory would further weaken the opposition and add to pressure on Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom Yingluck unseated as prime minister 18 months ago by winning a parliamentary majority. It would also boost Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister by the military in 2006 and is seeking an amnesty to return to Thailand after fleeing a jail sentence on charges stemming from the coup.
“We’re looking now at the next two elections, certainly the next election and probably the one beyond, where the Democrats still don’t have a team that can beat Thaksin’s machine,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said by phone. “Thaksin will be emboldened if Pongsapat wins, but I don’t think that increased confidence is going to be enough for him to make a new bid to return.”
The Democrats won the past three Bangkok governor elections dating back to 2004 by more than 10 percentage points. In national elections in 2007 and 2011, the party won at least 75 percent of Bangkok’s 36 seats. In 2005, before the coup, Thaksin’s party won 32 of 36 constituencies in the capital.
While polls have varied widely in the run-up to the governor election, most show Pongsapat in the lead.
He topped Sukhumbhand by seven percentage points in a Bangkok University survey of 1,637 people from Feb. 11 to Feb. 17. About 18 percent of respondents were undecided in the poll, which had a margin of error of three percentage points.
Pongsapat held a one point lead in a National Institute of Development and Administration survey of 1,458 people on Feb. 18 and Feb. 19, within the five-percentage-point margin of error. About 37 percent of respondents were undecided, more than either major candidate received.
Bangkok covers an area twice the size of New York City and accounts for about a third of Thailand’s economy. Households in the capital earned about 24,000 baht ($805) per month in 2007, almost double the average in other parts of the country, according to the most recent data on the National Statistical Office of Thailand’s website.
$2 Billion Budget
Bangkok and Pattaya, a resort town on the Gulf of Thailand, are the only localities that hold direct elections for their leaders. Still, the governor’s ability to tackle Bangkok’s traffic and pollution problems are limited.
The Interior Ministry, which appoints governors in Thailand’s 76 provinces, oversees the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The governor controls a budget of about 60 billion baht, or about 40 percent of what Jakarta spends to run Indonesia’s capital.
Pongsapat, 57, says the sparse funds make it necessary to have close ties with the national government. He touted his relations with Yingluck in campaign speeches while promising free bus rides, more frequent trash collection and better sidewalks for Bangkok’s pedestrians. Along with Thaksin, he holds a doctorate degree from Sam Houston State University.
“Everything I promise is possible,” Pongsapat told supporters while campaigning on Jan. 21. “As long as Yingluck is our prime minister, solving problems for Bangkok will be done at full force.”
The Democrat party, whose founders include royal descendants, backed protesters who took over Bangkok’s airports in 2008 to oust Thaksin’s allies.
After Sukhumbhand, 60, took office in 2009, Thaksin’s supporters twice cordoned off parts of the city in an effort to remove Abhisit, who took power a year earlier after a court disbanded the ruling party using a constitutional clause inserted after the coup. Protests in 2010 killed more than 90 people and spawned arson attacks on malls and office buildings after Abhisit declared so-called “live-fire zones” in central Bangkok.
The following year, in the months after Yingluck’s victory, Thailand’s worst flooding in 70 years inundated parts of Bangkok, including Don Mueang airport. Sukhumbhand clashed with Yingluck over managing the floodwaters, which shuttered more than 800 factories and disrupted global supply chains.
Sukhumbhand has promised to bolster the city’s flood defenses, build more parks, extend mass transit lines and install more closed-circuit television cameras to fight crime if he wins another four-year term. In campaign speeches, he vowed to protect Bangkok’s interests when they conflict with the aims of Yingluck’s government.
“I will fight for you,” Sukhumbhand said at a Feb. 22 rally in Bangkok’s Minburi district. “I will not give in or bow down to any people even though they have so much power.”
Abhisit, who is campaigning for Sukhumbhand, became Democrat party leader in 2005. He has presided over two straight defeats in national elections and faces murder charges for his role in dispersing the 2010 protests. He denies any wrongdoing.
“We stood side by side with you in Bangkok during those difficult times and rebuilt the capital city,” Abhisit said in a video message to supporters yesterday. “This election is very important because Bangkok is not just a city -- it’s the capital and the economic and financial center.”
An election loss for Abhisit’s Democrats will trigger calls to revamp the party, according to Daniel Giles, a director at Vriens & Partners, a Singapore-based political risk firm.
“It should lead to some soul-searching,” he said. “The Democrats’ failure to reform and seeming lack of ability to widen their appeal is a big concern for the future of Thai democracy.”