Bangkok election offers lessons to all parties concerned
No party was spared a lesson from Bangkok's gubernatorial election last Sunday, in which incumbent MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party managed a record win against Pheu Thai challenger Police General Pongsapat Pongcharoen in one of the most exciting polls for the capital.The Democrats, despite the clear victory and a record 1.2 million votes for their candidate, soon came to the realisation that quite a few voters had cast their ballots for the party's candidate "gnashing our teeth" - a Thai expression for extreme reluctance.
What that means is that a large number of Bangkokians wished the Democrat Party had fielded a "more qualified" candidate. Some cast their ballots not because they wanted the Democrats to remain in power but because they couldn't stand the idea of a Thaksin Shinawatra cadre running the capital.
Even Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted that Pongsapat getting more than a million votes was a clear message from the public: the Democrats will have to shape up if they want to retain their seats in the next election, be it local or national.
The grim lesson for Pheu Thai was that, despite a vote count that exceeded even their best expectations, the clear warning from city voters is that they remain suspicious of the party's motives. It was also a blunt reminder that a lot of people in Bangkok are still haunted by scenes of parts of the city being put to the torch during recent red-shirt protests.
The Pheu Thai Party's spokesman said the Democrats had won because of the "atmosphere of fear" the party had spawned during the campaign. The Democrats were telling voters that, if they picked Pongsapat, they were choosing the side of those who had resorted to violence in the city - and that the central government under Premier Yingluck Shinawatra would "monopolise" power if the Pheu Thai candidate became the next Bangkok governor.
Pheu Thai's "seamless" theme during the campaign for Pongsapat apparently backfired. For anti-government voters, that message read that the central government would use the governor as a tool to get things done its own way. They claimed that any hope of a proper balance of power would be dashed if Pongsapat had beaten Sukhumbhand.
For the pollsters, it was a disaster. All early polls had declared Pongsapat a sure winner. Most exit polls also gave Pheu Thai a clear victory, which ran counter to the actual votes when they were counted. Apparently, most polls were flawed.
Instead of blaming the respondents for "lying to the pollsters", the various poll agencies should do some serious soul-searching and re-examine their methodologies, which obviously were far off the mark.
The media, too, learned a very expensive lesson for not being critical enough in handling the early poll results. News people fell prey to the pollsters for the simple reason that they had no other means of monitoring public opinion. In fact, the press should have anticipated a boomerang effect when most polls suggested week after week that Sukhumband would lose. The pro-Democrat voters were agitated by the polls to the point that they began to campaign for the "silent majority" and those who might otherwise have stayed at home, to come out and prove the polls wrong.
The most important lesson was probably for the citizen on the street. He or she was suddenly overwhelmed by all sorts of rhetoric that was anything but constructive and informative. But it was soon clear that every eligible voter had to decide, and not cast his vote in such a way that could be interpreted as being "too close to call", as was the case with most exit polls.
The average voter learned, painfully, despite vigorous denial, that he or she would be accused of having decided to cast his ballot for "the lesser evil".
It didn't have to be that way. It shouldn't have been that way. It must not be that way again.