BANGKOK (AP) – Voters in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, headed to the polls Sunday to elect a new governor, in a contest whose results are likely to be seen as a barometer of the public mood ahead of an approaching general election.
A record-high 31 candidates entered the race, but the battle being watched most closely is between two who registered as independents: former Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt, whose opinion polls have marked as the strong front-runner, and Asawin Kwanmuang, who served as the appointed governor since 2016 until stepping down in March this year to contest the race.
The candidates campaigned on local issues, including congestion, pollution and persistent flooding. There are 4.4 million registered voters in the city, the country’s biggest. Its last gubernatorial election was in 2013.
Neither the main opposition party in Parliament, Pheu Thai, nor the ruling Palang Pracharath party have candidates on the ballot.
However, 55-year-old Chadchart, the charismatic independent front-runner, is seen by both supporters and opponents as a proxy for Pheu Thai, for which he stood as a prime ministerial candidate in the 2019 general election. He served as transport minister in a Pheu Thai government in 2012-2014.
His main rival is 71-year-old Asawin, who was appointed governor in 2016 by Prayuth Chan-ocha. As an army commander, Prayuth seized power in a 2014 coup to lead a military regime, and he dismissed the previous governor over corruption allegations. Prayuth was returned to office following the 2019 election as prime minister in a coalition government led by the pro-military Palang Pracharath.
Like Chadchart, former senior policeman Asawin is standing as an independent, though he is very much seen as the government candidate, a stand-in for Palang Pracharath. Polls generally have him running second.
Suchatvee Suwansawat, 50, is standing as the candidate for the Democrat Party, and is seen as having an outside chance if conservative voters as a bloc support him instead of Asawin. The Democrats have historically been a power in Bangkok but have fractured badly in the past two decades of polarized politics that have seen street violence and two coups.
Prime Minister Prayuth has been in power for eight years. He is expected soon to face a no-confidence motion in Parliament, and rivals on his own side have long been rumored to be seeking to remove him. Even if he survives, there must be a general election by the early part of next year.
Prayuth was able to rule by decree as head of a military government but has struggled within the limits of parliamentary democracy, taking fire especially for fumbling Thailand’s coronavirus vaccination program and recovery plan.
A fourth candidate whose results will be carefully watched is Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn from the opposition Move Forward Party. His progressive party takes a more critical stance than Pheu Thai towards the government, but for that reason could siphon votes from Chadchart’s total, to Asawin’s benefit.
Political science Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University noted it will be the first significant election since the 2014 coup.
“People are hungry to have a say,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “The result, if it clearly goes against the ruling Palang Pracharat, would be consequential for parliament, Prayuth and no-confidence.”
Bangkok is administratively a province as well as a city, and the only one where residents can choose their own governor, who is appointed elsewhere by the country’s Interior Ministry.