Results of Bangkok polls hint at easing of Thailand's colour-coded politics

The unofficial tallies show independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt winning an overwhelming 1.39 million votes. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Preliminary results from Sunday's (May 22) Bangkok governor and city council elections indicate a desire for change, with votes cast overwhelmingly in favour of independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt and more than 60 per cent of the council seats going to opposition parties.

The vote tallies, which have yet to be endorsed by the Election Committee, bode well for the pro-democracy camp and are a blow for the conservative parties who in the past dominated the city polls.

"It is clear that the pro-democracy camp is now in control of the Bangkok Metropolitan, and the pro-government parties did not fare well," said political analyst Punchada Sirivunnabood from Mahidol University in Bangkok.

The unofficial tallies show the 55-year-old Mr Chadchart - who leans towards pro-democracy ideals but is also viewed as a moderate - winning an overwhelming 1.39 million votes in the governor race.

He is far ahead of Democrat Party candidate Suchatvee Suwansawat, 50, who had 254,647 votes and Move Forward Party candidate Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, 44, with 253,851 votes.

Former deputy governor Sakoltee Phattiyakul, 44, received 230,455 votes, while former governor Aswin Kwanmuang, 71, trailed behind with 214,692 votes. Both ran as independent candidates but are linked to the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party.

The election, the first governor race since 2013, saw more than 60 per cent of the 4.4 million eligible voters casting their votes on Sunday.

Mr Chadchart's sweeping victory is a possible sign that the colour-coded politics characteristic of Thailand could be abating as well.

"It might be that people are ready to move beyond the political divide. Whatever Chadchart's background might be, they identify with him and voted for him," said Mr Isra Sunthornvut, Thailand country director at consultancy firm Vriens & Partners, who is a former MP from the Democrat Party.

In 2012, Mr Chadchart was appointed transport minister in the Pheu Thai-led government and was picked as a prime minister candidate for the Thaksin Shinawatra-linked party during the previous general election.

But he quit in 2019 to run as an independent in the Bangkok governor election.

Critics view him as a proxy of Thaksin and in the lead-up to the vote tried to incite fears that the former premier, a polarising figure who was ousted in a 2006 coup, could make a comeback if Mr Chadchart won the vote.

"Despite, and in spite of this, a lot of people who we can assume are not Pheu Thai or Thaksin supporters have voted for Chadchart," said Mr Isra. "This shows that using the red-yellow political divide as a scare tactic won't work as well now."

Historically, the "yellow shirts" represent the royalists, the pro-establishment and those opposed to Thaksin's populist policies. The "red shirts" consist of the anti-establishment camp and supporters of Thaksin.

Mr Chadchart has said he will work with other parties and will take up recommendations from fellow governor candidates.

A day after the polls, he was spotted with Mr Wiroj inspecting the canals in the Lat Phrao district in Bangkok.

He said on Sunday night: "I'm ready to be everyone's governor. Whether you voted for me or not, I will serve all of you equally."

A day after the polls, Mr Chadchart Sittipunt was spotted with Move Forward Party candidate Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn (right) inspecting the canals in the Lat Phrao district in Bangkok. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

But what is most notable are the inroads that opposition parties Pheu Thai and Move Forward made when they captured a sizeable number of the 50 Bangkok Metropolitan Council seats, said analysts.

Unofficial tallies show that Pheu Thai got 20 seats and Move Forward had 14.

"This will shift the political phenomenon of Bangkok, which is usually a conservative stronghold," said Dr Punchada, noting that city councillors can canvass support in the local communities that can benefit parties in national polls.

In particular, it is interesting that Move Forward, which fielded many fresh faces, was able to secure the second-highest number of seats, said Dr Punchada.

Government coalition parties failed to make a dent in the council polls. The Democrat Party, which once considered Bangkok its stronghold, garnered just nine seats and the Palang Pracharath got two.

"This should be a wake-up call for the coalition parties, they cannot rest on their laurels," said Mr Isra.

While Sunday's results do signal Bangkok's desire for leadership change and serve as a gauge for political sentiment, the local polls cannot be seen as a referendum of how Thais will vote during the national election expected this year.

Said Dr Punchada: "It does signal that people in Bangkok are not happy with the current situation, but it cannot be extrapolated to the whole of Thailand."

Since the 2014 military coup, pro-junta leaders have led the government. They installed Mr Aswin as Bangkok's non-elected governor in 2016.

"It is more so a referendum on the longevity of the government. When one party is in power for too long, people tend to go for the other side," said Mr Isra.

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