The underdog factor in the Bangkok election
Top candidates Sukhumbhand and Pongsapat will be keen to be both forthright, and humbleBangkok gubernatorial elections are extraordinary in that, previously, underdogs or candidates who portray themselves as underdogs stand a great chance. The new race has just begun and most signs suggest that the trend is very much respected. Candidates want to be seen as a political victim, or someone facing a smear campaign so dirty the only vindication is an election victory. Bangkok loves humble candidates, and that is an intriguing challenge for the big parties.
Traffic, flood fears, lack of parks and how to deal with a huge mass of accumulating garbage top the list of urgent priorities for the governor who will be elected at the beginning of March. But a big part of the Democrat Party's and Pheu Thai Party's campaigns will be mobilised towards getting their candidates to look like modest and sincere individuals. Omnipresence is a dangerous image going into the gubernatorial election.
Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the incumbent governor who is seeking a second term, may be happier being charged by the Department of Special Investigation now. The government, on the other hand, is scrambling to prevent the charges from backfiring politically. DSI chief Tharit Pengdith has announced that his agency is in no hurry to formally inform Sukhumbhand of charges related to a Skytrain contract because "we don't want to be seen as politically persecuting him".
With this in mind, Sukhumbhand may have been disappointed, politically speaking. Front-page photos of him getting charged by the government could well be more effective than 1,000 election posters combined. Whether or not Bangkok voters are "sophisticated", one can say they're like everybody else, who has a soft spot for a weaker opponent in any contest.
Pheu Thai candidate Pongsapat Pongcharoen is also having some old wounds reopened. Allegations about shoplifting in the United States are coming back supposedly to haunt him. He has, of course, denied the charges and the ruling party has let the media know without embarrassment that Pongsapat is trailing Sukhumbhand considerably in recent popularity surveys.
Everyone knows Thailand's political divide will dictate the Bangkok gubernatorial election. The Democrats want to keep their most important stronghold and Pheu Thai will seek to get the final piece of the "legitimacy" jigsaw. Bangkok voters will not be as concerned about traffic and pollution as using the election to make an ideological statement.
This, however, doesn't mean that Sukhumbhand and Pongsapat will not first enter a race to be "the underdog" going into the election. Chamlong Srimuang, Bhichit Rattakul and Samak Sundaravej have all proved how the sympathy card could be very formidable if played correctly. And don't discount the usual "decoy" - a supposedly loose-cannon "independent" candidate whose only motive for joining the race could be to steal votes from a key runner.
It will be a delicate campaign. Sukhumbhand faced considerable criticism from the way he handled the 2011 floods, but Pheu Thai's fierce attacks focusing on the disaster could badly backfire. The Democrats, on the other hand, may weaken Sukhumbhand's chances if they openly bring national politics into the campaign. One of the biggest missteps by Sukhumbhand, some analysts believe, was when put a political message in a giant billboard which should have served solely to promote his City Hall work.
Largely, it will be an ideological campaign because, at the end of the day, counting on "ideology votes" are both rival parties' best bet. But Bangkok voters' "underdog" obsession will be seriously taken into account, meaning both parties will be aware that overdoing it could ruin their chances. A great balance is needed here. In other words, the key to victory could be how to be offensive while being perceived as the underdog at the receiving end of an unfair campaign. After all, politics is about seeking mass sympathy, and in the Thai context, that is much more so.