Bangkok gubernatorial election seen as national omen

BANGKOK (AP) — Residents of the Thai capital, Bangkok, will vote Sunday for the city’s leader in a vote seen as a barometer of public mood ahead of the upcoming general election.

Opinion polls suggest that candidates associated with opposition parties in Parliament will dominate the race, while the incumbent, who is seen as the ruling party’s pick, lags behind.

Bangkok, the country’s largest city, is legally a province and the only one where residents can elect their own governor. The post elsewhere is appointed by the Home Office. It has been nine years since the last election, and the voters’ choice was last replaced in 2016 by an appointee of the military government that then ran Thailand.

Thai politics since the 2006 coup has generally been polarized between pro- and anti-militarist parties, with the main candidates reflecting that schism.

The favorite in the polls, Chadchart Sittipunt, is running as an independent. But both his supporters and his opponents see him as a representative of the main opposition party, Pheu Thai, for which he ran as a candidate for prime minister in the 2019 general election. He served as transport minister in a Pheu government. Thai from 2012 to 2014.

“You need a governor for the people: focused on the people, you know, responding to their day-to-day problems, improving their day-to-day problems, that’s one thing,” Chadchart, 55, told The Associated. Newspapers like him recently campaigned at a market. “You also need a governor who has a vision, who has the strategy to take the city into the future, so two jobs are needed.”

A record 31 candidates entered the race, but Chadchart’s performance against one candidate in particular is drawing special scrutiny.

Asawin Kwanmuang was appointed governor in 2016 by Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who seized power in the 2014 coup and returned to office after the 2019 election as Thailand’s prime minister.

Like Chadchart, the former senior police officer says he is running as an independent, though he is widely seen as the government’s candidate, a stand-in for the ruling Palang Pracharath party.

“I urge (people) to vote for the ‘Love Bangkok’ team. Our team is not linked to any political party. Our team really wants to develop Bangkok into a better city,” he told reporters at a campaign rally last week.

A third candidate whose results will be closely watched is Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn of the opposition Move Forward Party. His party takes a more critical stance towards the government than Pheu Thai, but for that reason it could siphon votes from Chadchart’s total, to Asawin’s advantage.

The candidates are campaigning on local issues: congestion, pollution, persistent flooding and more. But the poll is likely to be influenced as much by its timing as it is by its themes.

Prime Minister Prayuth has been in power for eight years. He is expected to soon face a vote of no confidence in Parliament, and it has long been rumored that rivals on his own side are trying to unseat him. Even if he survives, there should be a general election early next year.

Prayuth may have ruled by decree as the head of a military government, but he has wrestled with the limits of parliamentary democracy, especially being criticized for torpedoing Thailand’s coronavirus vaccination program and recovery plan.

“People are fed up. They are fed up because the economy is going nowhere, there is no vision for the future,” said political science professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“There is no future, that is why the young people are protesting. General Prayuth is out of his league so I think we will see voters say something here for the Bangkok governor election and that will be a harbinger, a sign of things to come in the broader polls in Thailand.”

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Associated Press video journalist Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.

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