Bangkok Governor Race:

Puea Thai v Democrats

BANGKOK - In the race to be elected Governor of Bangkok, the Puea Thai party's man Pongsapat Pongcharoen remains ahead of Democrat Party rival M.R. Sukhumbhand Paribatra in public opinion polls.

And the ruling Puea Thai party is pulling out the stops in the campaign, sensing the possibility of a victory this time around.

The election is on March 3.

But the party is under no illusions, however, that Bangkok voters are notoriously fickle, and many remain undecided up until just days before the election.

Yet a defeat would be business as usual for the Puea Thai - which lost to the Democrat Party in the last three gubernatorial elections in the capital.

A victory on the other hand, would be a surprise and could have far reaching consequences.

Among Democrats, some two weeks before the election, there is speculation that a rare defeat in their Bangkok stronghold could seriously undermine the stature of party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Mr Sukhumbhand who has been governor for the last four years and has a mixed record, was not the party's first choice.

The candidature was offered to party deputy leader and former finance minister Korn Chatikavanij among others.

Mr Sukhumbhand, who comes from Thailand's aristocracy and like Mr Abhisit was educated in England, is known for not always agreeing with the party line.
At times this has been obvious.

At a recent campaign rally he continuously lauded Democrat Party senior Chuan Leekpai while not once mentioning Mr Abhisit's name even though the man was sitting on stage right next to Mr Chuan.

Puea Thai insiders cannot help chuckling at all this latent discord - and at the potential discomfiture of Mr Abhisit.

"There is only half-hearted support for Sukhumbhand from his own party," one senior Puea Thai member said, asking not to be named. And in the typically convoluted thinking of the chess game of Thai politics, he concluded.

"The longer Abhisit Vejjajiva remains leader of the Democrats the better for us."

The reason? While there are contenders for leadership of the Democrat Party - among them Mr Korn, and former Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayothin, and former Asean Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan - they are not quite ready in terms of the support of various party factions.

Mr Abhisit is still the poster boy of the Bangkok elite, and there are still over two years to go before the next general election.

A weakened Abhisit may perpetuate and exacerbate the flaws in the Democrat Party that have seen it lose several national general elections.

Not least of these is the continuing perception, that the Democrat Party is the party of the Bangkok elites and the Puea Thai party is more in touch with "the people."

All this is now a tempting scenario, and Puea Thai heavyweights - from former Senator Ms Sudarat Keyuraphan, to the fiery orator Nattawut Saikua, to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra herself with her 1000 watt smile - are turning out regularly to boost Mr Pongsapat.

The Puea Thai also knows that the Democrat Party has deep loyalty in Bangkok's upper middle class and in the administrative machinery as well, and winning the gubernatorial post is a long shot.

But in recent years it has not been so tantalisingly close.

On Feb 8 Chulalongkorn University professor of political science Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote: "For Mr Pongsapat, a close win will mean a big win. It will signify Puea Thai's coming domination in the next national polls."

His colleague at Chulalongkorn, professor Panitan Wattanayagorn who was Mr Abhisit's spokesman when the latter was prime minister, over the phone agreed that a loss for the Democrat Party would put pressure on Mr Abhisit.

And if the loss is by a wide margin the maneuvering to replace Mr Abhisit could begin earlier than expected.

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