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Sukhumbhand's record victory: Local vote with national message

Fear of 'absolute control' may have led to last-minute change of heart for many voters

The Bangkok election winner Sukhumbhand Paribatra and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra both similarly greeted yesterday's amazing outcome of the most exciting gubernatorial race in recent memory in choked voices. The results, however, underlined vast political differences that confirm Thailand as a country in political impasse, even as the capital set three electoral records.







Sukhumbhand became the biggest gubernatorial race winner - with a record 1.25 million votes - despite having been the most taunted leading candidate in recent times. His party almost decided not to field him and Thaksin Shinawatra reportedly claimed any electricity pole could beat this Democrat. The social media had been full of anti-Sukhumbhand insults.

In the end, the "fear factor" apparently prevailed. Sukhumbhand was fairly popular, but not "that popular", analysts say. His stunning victory, which deceived even those who conducted exit polls, may have owed considerably to voters who had a change of heart at the last minute. He trailed first runner-up Pongsapat Pongcha-roen of the ruling Pheu Thai Party in most, if not all, pre-election surveys. But, just in time, his Democrat Party pulled some arguably nasty punches, reminding Bangkokians disillusioned with Sukhumbhand that their protest vote would benefit Thaksin and bring back "absolute control".

Pongsapat did not do that badly. He surpassed 1 million votes, the first runner-up to do that, but his best was not good enough. Bangkok, like the rest of Thailand, is ideologically divided. Only the city has more supporters of one side than the other.

The Democrat got 1,256,231 votes, compared to 1,077,899 for the Pheu Thai candidate, according to results provided by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).

Previously, late Bangkok governor Samak Sundaravej, who later served as prime minister, was the only candidate to win more than a million votes - 1,016,096 - and became the governor in 2000.

Yesterday's voter turnout was 63.98 per cent despite rainstorms in several parts of the capital. A total of 2,715,640 out of the 4,244,465 eligible voters cast their ballots, according to the BMA.

It was the highest turnout for a gubernatorial election in Bangkok. The previous record was 62.5 per cent, set in 2004, when Democrat candidate Apirak Kosayodhin won the election to become governor.

The Election Commission had expected the turnout to exceed 60 per cent while the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration hoped to see a turnout of more than 70 per cent.

Yingluck, apparently on the verge of tears, promised seamless government cooperation with City Hall, an ironic promise given Pongsapat's campaign that he would get better government support than Sukhumbhand did. What was on Yingluck's mind was probably more than the Government House-City Hall liaison. A lot of controversial agendas like charter amendment and issuance of political amnesty will have to take into account yesterday's votes. It would have been easier had Pongsapat won.

As for the Democrats, it was a very close call despite the magnitude of support for Sukhumbhand. Pheu Thai is apparently closing the gap in the city. That and pre-election surveys should give the opposition camp a clear warning that this could be the Democrats' last chance to please the highly fickle and extremely demanding Bangko-kians, whatever their desires are.

Pre-election surveys showed considerable support for independent candidates, apparently at the expense of pro-Sukhumbhand votes. As it turned out, the independents failed to make an impact this time. This perhaps showed that a plunge in Sukhumbhand's pre-poll popularity startled Bangkokians disillusioned with him to make an ideological statement in the polling booths.

Everyone sounded polite and reconciliatory after the unofficial outcome became known. Nobody should be fooled by that, however. The political divide that was clear and present became even more so with the results. The best hope is that Bangkok voters' message will make the Pheu Thai government more careful with controversial political agendas, and prompt the Democrats to play constructive politics that really delivers.

A Pongsapat victory could have diluted Thailand's image as two nations in one country. Sukhumbhand may argue that his triumph has more to do with pollution, safety of city life and transport convenience. He might be right to a degree, but political analysts are saying that the national divide was of big help. Maybe he won because Thailand remains two nations in one country. And that may provide little cause for celebration.

Unless the solemn promises made by both Yingluck and Sukhumbhand yesterday evening after the results became known are kept, that is.

Thai people, however, most probably know better, and after the celebrations of one camp, they expect political realities to reassert themselves real soon.

Pongsapat congratulated Sukhum-bhand and conceded defeat yesterday, shortly after 6pm, well before the official counting had been completed. He said he would continue to work for the benefit of Bangkokians in a different capacity though he was vague as to in what capacity. "If I could, I will do what I can fully," said Pongsapat. He said it would be up to the prime minister to decide in what capacity he could serve the government and the public best.

PM Yingluck, sitting beside Pong-sapat, also had no immediate answer. Yingluck congratulated Sukhum-bhand as well as all those who had voted for Pongsapat and vowed to "seamlessly" work with the re-elected governor.

The premier, who didn't look too pleased during the press conference, however, said that the Pheu Thai government would be pleased to continue to serve Bangkokians. "Pheu Thai will continue to support good policies," she said. "We are ready to seamlessly work with the Bangkok governor. Our duty is to work for everyone."






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