March 06, 2013 00:00 By Pravit Rojanaphruk @PravitR
Sunday's Bangkok gubernatorial election was more a referendum on Thaksin Shinawatra and what happened in April-May 2010 in Bangkok and beyond, than a normal local election where voters decided who should best administer the capital.
The result was the first in Bangkok history where the runner-up got more than a million votes. Winning candidate incumbent MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra received 1.25 million votes to edge out Pheu Thai’s pro-Thaksin candidate Pongsapat Pongcharoen by 178,332 – revealing Bangkok to be a deeply divided city.
What’s more, the 11 districts that Pheu Thai won are all in the outlying areas of the capital, dominated by the working class, while all central districts of Bangkok went sky blue, the Democrat Party’s colour.
Sukhumbhand won 39 districts and no independent candidate won a single district.
Suharit Siamwalla, the biggest truly independent candidate not indirectly linked to the anti-Thaksin yellow-shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy or any political group, attracted only 78,825 votes – less than a quarter of what then independent candidate MR Nattakorn Devakul received back in 2009. In the final major rally by the Democrats last Friday at Benjasiri Park, many speakers stressed the election was actually about whether or not Bangkokians would be willing to allow ousted and fugitive former premier Thaksin to “take over” Bangkok. Observing the rally myself, I heard party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva ask supporters on stage whether they wanted someone who “works for the people”, or someone who “works for Thaksin”.
Judging from the lower-than-expected votes garnered by all independent candidates combined – despite Sunday’s election showing the highest turnout in the history of Bangkok at 63.98 per cent, as opposed to a low 51.10 per cent in 2009 – it’s clear that this wasn’t the usual gubernatorial election.
The year 2009 was before the traumatic events of April-May 2010 when Rajdamnoen Avenue and Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection were shut down by pro-Thaksin red shirts. Bloodshed followed as the then Abhisit administration quelled the rioting with armed troops and live bullets, culminating in the death of more than 90 people, mostly red shirts. Fires broke out at CentralWorld, Zen Department Store and beyond.
It’s difficult to find any Bangkokian who is indifferent to those events. Meanwhile, Thaksin is like durian – you either love him or hate him.
To make matters worse, news spread in the last stretch of the campaign that red-shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan, a key leader in the occupation of Ratchaprasong, might be appointed deputy governor if Pongsapat won. Pheu Thai refused to kill the story, which was likely the last straw for those who loathe Thaksin.
An acquaintance was overheard after the vote count began as saying that after learning about the prospect of Jatuporn becoming deputy governor of the city “he burnt down”, he had to come out and vote for Sukhumbhand. On the other hand, red-sympathiser @methawinner tweeted to me after the election that calling for people to “defend the city from reds demonstrated that we’re already people of different races”.
As for the class-divide issue, the electoral result again reinforced the hypothesis that poor and less educated people tend to support Thaksin (and sister Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai) while those better educated and better off tend to go for the Democrats. The Democrat Party is filled with leaders educated at top universities abroad and hailing from old elite families. Sukhumbhand, Abhisit and deputy party leader Korn Chatikavanij were all educated at Oxford.
Though these elites tend to have difficulties connecting to the masses, their trump card was raising the fear of Thaksin taking over the capital. As a result, Bangkokians have missed the opportunity to hold a proper gubernatorial election and succeeded in making a national political feud part of local politics.