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Bangkok governor re-elected despite his failings

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Special To The Japan Times

The Bangkok gubernatorial election, held early this month amid great fanfare, saw incumbent Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra, from the national opposition Democrat Party, hold on for another term despite having implemented a number of failed policies during the past four years.

Sukhumbhand won the election with a record-high number of votes, surpassing 1.25 million votes. According to the official result of the full vote count on March 3, Sukhumbhand gained 1.25 million votes, defeating Pol Gen Pongsapat Pongcharoen, who had 1.07 million votes. Pongsapat had been nominated by the ruling Peua Thai Party and reportedly had been specially handpicked by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

After the votes were counted, Sukhumbhand expressed his gratitude to the people who helped him to get more than 1 million votes in the election. He pledged to work harder and be more committed to serve the Bangkokians.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, together with Pol Gen Pongsapat who conceded defeat, made an official announcement and congratulated Sukhumbhand. Yingluck promised that the government would work cooperatively with him as a newly elected Bangkok governor.

In his first term, Sukhumbhand was criticized for having failed to solve key problems facing Bangkok and to fulfill his ambitious projects.

When devastating floods hit Bangkok in 2011, for example, Sukhumbhand refused to work with the Yingluck government, claiming that he was protecting Bangkok at all costs. But in so doing, other provinces were made to suffer from floodwaters after Bangkok blocked the waterways that disallowed excessive water to reach the sea.

Then there were cases of the Bangkok Metropolitan installing fake surveillance cameras, sparking the issue of corruption since the budget was originally allocated for the purchase of real surveillance cameras. Sukhumbhand was also unable to answer the public about his plan to build a giant tunnel designed to let floodwaters get through Bangkok to avoid the capital being flooded. The giant tunnel was never constructed.

In another embarrassing case, Thailand was selected to host the 2012 FIFA Futsal World Cup, from Nov. 1-18, 2012. Sukhumbhand had promised to complete a new stadium for this global event, but again failed to deliver. FIFA decided to move the venue to an older stadium in Bangkok — the decision that tarnished the reputation of the Bangkok governor.

With these criticisms, then why did Bangkokians still vote for Sukhumbhand?

Bangkok is known as the power center for Thai traditional elites backed by members of the middle and upper middle class. They have adopted an anti-Thaksin attitude ever since Thaksin, while in power from 2001 to 2006, posed a threat to their position of powers. They approved the military’s staging of a coup that overthrew his regime. Thaksin, meanwhile, has enjoyed popular support from poor residents of the far-flung north and northeast regions of Thailand.

Toward the end of the election campaign, the Democrats’ camp deployed an old strategy to discredit the Peua Thai candidate, propagating slogans such as “Don’t elect those who burned our city,” which was a reference to the arson attacks against the Central World building in downtown Bangkok in May 2010, allegedly committed by Peua Thai supporters in the “red shirt” movement. Other slogans included “Don’t allow Thaksin to take control of the royal capital” and “Let’s stop the political domination of one family,” supposedly meaning the Shinawatra family.

Many Bangkokians, albeit let down by Sukhumbhand’s performance, were compelled to vote for him as a rejection of the Peua Thai candidate. But choosing Sukhumbhand not because of his quality but rather because of a political ideology will certainly further complicate the Thai political conflict ignited in the aftermath of the 2006 coup. First of all, the triumph of Sukhumbhand will deepen the already widened gap between Thai traditional elites and the Thaksin faction.

There is a great divide between the center and the periphery, and between the rich in Bangkok and the poor in the remote provinces. The decision by Bangkok residents showed that they continue to detest Thaksin and his political legacy. It was also a slap in the face of the ruling government under Prime Minister Yingluck.

The gubernatorial election also reflected the severe politicization of current political issues and the troubles which Thailand has been encountering. Instead of judging candidates by their policies, and in the case of Sukhumbhand — his past failures and achievements — voters in Bangkok were willing to sacrifice their vote to punish Peua Thai, even while recognizing the incumbent governor’s lack of effectiveness.

And when Bangkok residents complained about the poor in the outlying regions falling prey to vote buying, they themselves also fell into the trap of devious political ideology. Political divisiveness obscured the fact that Bangkok will have to bear up under the same old incapable governor for the next four years.

If there is one positive outcome deriving from the gubernatorial election, it is the adherence to electoral democracy. All sides of political divisions came to exercise their vote in the Bangkok gubernatorial election.

After Sukhumbhand won the poll, his supporters immediately appeared enamored with electoral politics. It is ironic because many of the same Bangkok residents have endorsed several coups that removed elected governments in the past. When their political interests were lost in the process of the election, they did not hesitate to belittle electoral democracy.

With Sukhumbhand returning to the helm of affairs in Bangkok, the conflict between Bangkok and the government is expected to continue. And with the Democrat Party regaining full confidence, the battle against the Yingluck regime will be ever more fierce and intense.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.