By Mathis Lohatepanont*
On 1 June 2022, Chadchart Sittipunt officially assumed office as Governor of Bangkok. In doing so, he became the first figure identified with Thailand’s opposition camp to enter a prominent executive position since the military coup of May 2014.
Chadchart won in a landslide on 22 May 2022, coming first in every single district of the capital and garnering over fifty per cent of the vote against at least six other major contenders. The Democrat Party, a coalition partner that has won the past four gubernatorial races, saw its candidate come a distant second. Meanwhile, regime-appointed governor Aswin Kwanmuang finished in fifth place.
The pro-government candidates’ poor performance in this election can be partly explained by individual campaign deficiencies. The Democrats, for example, saw their momentum sapped by gaffes and sexual misconduct allegations surrounding the party’s former deputy leader and campaign manager Prinn Panitchpakdi.
The loyalties of Bangkok voters have also realigned over the past few years. Although the conservative Democrats once considered Bangkok a reliable base, in the 2019 general election the progressive Future Forward Party won the most votes in the capital. This election confirmed Bangkok’s continued transition into a bastion of anti-government sentiment. Chadchart, who is commonly seen as a liberal figure, succeeded by retaining the loyalty of voters from the opposition Pheu Thai Party, under whose banner he ran for prime minister in 2019.
Chadchart also formally eschewed ties with Pheu Thai and ran as an independent. This helped him attract moderate voters who otherwise may not have voted for a candidate with ties to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a deeply polarising figure to whom Pheu Thai is inextricably linked in the public eye.
The most immediate question now is whether Chadchart can work with the current government, which is headed by the coup leader turned civilian Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
On one hand, Chadchart has built a bipartisan team, selecting one of Aswin’s former deputies as deputy governor and appointing an advisory team with members who formerly belonged to both the government and opposition camps. His first meeting with the prime minister in June also went amicably. But he has also openly expressed his antipathy for the Prayut administration. Chadchart recently said publicly that he has been patiently waiting for revenge since the coup, which had removed him from his post as Minister of Transport.
Even if Chadchart does end up working harmoniously with the government, his election will still present challenges to Prime Minister Prayut. The new Governor’s approachable personality strongly contrasts with the Prime Minister’s military tone and mercurial temperament. Chadchart has also proven himself to be a savvy media operator with a digital clout and social media following that few politicians come close to matching.
Whether Chadchart’s current popularity will last is also an open question. Chadchart campaigned on over two hundred policies that he has publicly posted on his website. Both the powers and budget available to City Hall are limited, which may hamper Chadchart’s ability to deliver on his policy priorities. Prayut himself has already openly expressed doubt, saying that if Chadchart succeeded in accomplishing his goals he would truly be ‘even more powerful than the prime minister’.
As the first anti-coup figure in nearly a decade to hold a prominent governing post, Chadchart will likely become a lightning rod for criticism from the pro-government camp. He has already been the subject of a disqualification attempt from a conservative activist. This ultimately failed after enormous public pressure exerted on the Election Commission. This sniping is unlikely to fade. The Pheu Thai government has been lambasted for years about scandals such as its problematic rice pledging scheme. Should any new scandals occur under Chadchart’s watch, he can expect similarly relentless fire.
At the national level, opposition parties may struggle to use the Chadchart playbook to win votes. Candidates cannot run independently in the general election, and both Pheu Thai and the progressive Move Forward Party will not be able to shed their partisan baggage to attract voters at the centre in the same manner as the new governor.
It is undeniable that Chadchart’s victory builds momentum for the anti-government forces as they prepare to face the next election. The ruling parties, less than a year from the next election, find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to ensure that Chadchart does not get his ‘revenge’ and that they can remain in power at the national level.
*About the author: Mathis Lohatepanont is an analyst based in Bangkok and an incoming Ph.D. student at the Department of Political Science, University of Michigan.
Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum