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Saturday, November 26, 2022

Bangkok governor’s election test of political winds

BANGKOK ( Associated Press) – Voters in Thailand’s capital Bangkok on Sunday voted to elect a new governor, the results of which are likely to be seen as a barometer of public mood ahead of the general election.

A record-high 31 candidates entered the race, but the most closely watched battle is between two who have registered as independents: former Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt, whom opinion polls marked as a strong front-runner. and Asawin Kwanmuang, who served from 2016 until stepping down in March this year to fight in the race for appointed governor.

The candidates campaigned on local issues, including overcrowding, pollution and frequent floods. The country’s largest city has 4.4 million registered voters. Its last gubernatorial election was held in 2013.

Neither the main opposition party in parliament, Pheu Thai, nor the candidates of the ruling Bed Pracharath Party are on the ballot.

However, Chadchart, 55, the charismatic independent front-runner, is seen by both supporters and opponents as a proxy for Pheu Thai, for whom he stood as the prime ministerial candidate in the 2019 general election. He served as the Minister of Transport in the Phaeu Thai government from 2012–2014.

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His main rival is 71-year-old Aswin, who was appointed governor in 2016 by Prayuth Chan-ocha. As commander of the military, Prayuth seized power in a 2014 coup to lead a military regime, and he sacked the previous governor on corruption charges. Prayuth was returned as prime minister after the 2019 election in a coalition government led by the pro-Sena Palang Pracharath.

Like Chadchart, former senior policeman Asavin is standing as an independent, although he is seen as the candidate of the government, a stand-in for Palang Pracharath. Polls generally put him in second place.

Suchatvi Suwansawat, 50, is standing as the Democrat Party’s candidate, and is seen as an outside chance if conservative voters support him as a bloc instead of Asawin. Democrats have historically been a force in Bangkok, but have broken out badly in polarized politics over the past two decades, with street violence and two coups.

Prime Minister Prayuth has been in power for eight years. He is expected to soon face a no-confidence motion in parliament, and rivals on his own side have long been rumored to have removed him. Even if he survives, there should be a general election early next year.

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Prayuth was able to rule by decree as head of a military government, but struggled within the confines of parliamentary democracy, notably under fire for thwarting Thailand’s coronavirus vaccination program and recovery plan.

A fourth candidate whose results will be watched carefully is Viroj Lakkhanadishorn from the opposition Move Forward Party. His Progressive Party takes a more critical stance towards the government than Phu Thai, but this may move Chadchart’s total votes to Aswin’s advantage.

Thitinen Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said it would be the first significant election since the 2014 coup.

“People are hungry to say no,” he said in an email to the Associated Press. “The consequences, if this explicitly goes against the ruling bedrock propaganda, will be consequential for Parliament, Prayuth and distrust.”

Bangkok is administratively a province as well as a city, and is the only one where its residents can choose their governor, who is appointed elsewhere by the country’s interior ministry.

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