Bangkok election will also have national repercussions

opinion February 26, 2013 00:00

By Titipol Phakdeewanich

The fight for political supremacy in Bangkok reflects the city's innate sense of superiority. Regardless of the eventual result of the upcoming Bangkok gubernatorial election, the wider unfolding political scenario we are witnessing across Thailand will

To a significant extent, this reality is well understood, at least implicitly, by both the political class and by the Thai population more broadly, and it is in this context that several million Bangkokians are now being asked to decide whom to vote for.

As pre-election polling attempts to discern between the two leading candidates – Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party, and Pongsapat Pongcharoen of the Pheu Thai Party – there is increasing speculation that the later now has a good chance to win in the “land of the Democrats”.
The strategies embraced by the respective teams have significantly reflected the current trend towards political polarisation, and political analysts will consider this election to be an important opportunity to gauge the relative strengths of both Pheu Thai and the Democrats, overall. Indeed, even a close second place for Pheu Thai would be considered something of a moral victory in this regard.
In this context, much of what has constituted the various arguments vis-a-vis this election, has tended towards hyperbole and hammed-up political rhetoric, and this has played itself out within the public debate. Notwithstanding the apparent question over whether the key issues are being properly raised, there are now indications that, before too long, the Thai electorate will begin to more effectively cajole the political class into more thoroughly and transparently addressing matters of real substance. 
As a Bangkokian who is considering the various factors at play, Atthayudh Ittatirut states: “I will vote for the Democrat candidate, since I want the Democrats to balance the power of the Pheu Thai government.”
It is typical in more established democracies for an electorate that mistrusts the political class to vote in a somewhat contrarian fashion when they believe that institutional checks and balances, and the political system itself, are failing them. In Europe and North America, even relatively popular presidents and prime ministers often come up against broad oppositional majorities at local or state electoral level, and this dynamic is almost continually in flux.
How then will the Thai political system adapt and respond, when voter decision-making becomes increasingly considered and sophisticated, as the democracy itself grows? There is, as things stand, an almost overwhelming sense of mistrust between the major demographics of the Thai electorate, and perhaps this is most especially seen in terms of the rural-urban divide. 
Broadly speaking, these dynamics have been essentially subsumed into the red-yellow colour-coded political paradigm, and so it is elected politicians who are now being tasked with giving voice to the feelings and concerns of local constituents, while also attempting to cohesively reflect the party line. 
But what is perhaps of most concern about the tone of the current debate as it relates to the Bangkok election is the implication that either side may believe it can benefit from an escalation in political rhetoric. Let us hope that both sides, in their zeal for political victory, have only temporarily lost sight of the bigger picture, which is their shared responsibility to find ways to best represent the interests of all Thais. 
Thailand’s faltering emergent democracy can hardly afford further fragmentation between the Bangkok-centric perspective and the growing sense of rural and provincial alienation from the capital. When we consider Thai history, an important factor comes into play, which perhaps began with the relocation of the centre of power, over time, from Sukhothai, to Ayutthaya, to Thonburi, then finally to Bangkok. 
The impulse to further draw power into the centre has remained. This is reflected in the primacy Bangkok exhibits in relation to almost all the major considerations, which significantly affect the social, economic and political fortunes of most ordinary Thais. 
Paradoxically, although Bangkok has become a place unto itself, it cannot truly stand by itself. For its sustenance the city depends on daily supplies from outside, just as it depended on the transfer of resources from the agricultural sector to the industrial sector, and also on foreign direct investment, in order to help finance the Bangkok boom of the 1980s and early 1990s.
As the US historian Jerry Muller has recently argued: “… a useful starting point might be the rejection of both the politics of privilege and the politics of resentment and the adoption of a clear view of what capitalism actually involves. …” 
In this era of social and political unrest, therefore, it becomes rather less easy to argue for a sustainable economy for the provinces when Bangkok itself is hardly self-reliant, dependent as it is on the significant compliance of the rest of Thailand. 
The arguments advocating the role of Bangkok as the much-needed commercial and administrative hub of Thailand have of course been made many times, and it is a balancing act to be sure. But within our capital, the hardheaded capitalist mindset so often takes precedence, just as the political drive to win at all costs is equally heightened. This current state of imbalance is unlikely to be sustainable when it comes to the health of the Thai democracy and economy, and the cohesiveness of society overall. 
Ultimately, when individuals from even disadvantaged demographic groups such as the rural poor, learn to cooperate more effectively to challenge the existing paradigm, a solution to injustice has been found. After all, despite the plutocratic allusions of the current societal rift, there is a truth to be found in the words of the philosopher John Rawls: “Society is not so divided that one fairly small sector controls the preponderance of productive resources.” When people can truly live with the understanding that force, suppression or fear-mongering cannot correct states of imbalance, then even a less-than-perfect system can begin to learn how to make the necessary corrections. 
Titiplol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.