VIEW: Bangkok polls outcome will affect national politics

Suthichai Yoon in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - The Bangkok gubernatorial election on March 3 might prove to be of greater political significance to the national political landscape than just a race for the next man to run the capital. This poll will show whether the ruling Pheu Thai Party can finally shift the entrenched Democrats out of their traditional urban, middle-class stronghold of Bangkok.

The stakes are higher than simply whether MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra can get a mandate for a second term or whether Police General Pongspat Pongcharoen of Pheu Thai can become the first government-backed man to break the jinx. The battle for Bangkok this time is a decisive test of whether the "Thaksin brand" can make a dent in a Democrat-dominated constituency.

Some polls put newcomer Pongspat ahead of incumbent Sukhumbhand if the election were to be held today. That has caused something of a sensation among those following this election closely. Neither side can afford to lose.

An Abac Poll said Pongspat could win 43.6 per cent of the vote, with Sukhumbhand at 36.6 per cent, but Bangkok Poll said the two might be neck and neck at 23.9 per cent against 23.6 per cent.

Pongspat's main campaign theme is "seamless coordination" with the central government, since he belongs to the ruling Pheu Thai. His personal record includes being an outstanding PR police officer and, more recently, a drug-buster won't draw him votes. It's how Bangkok voters view Pheu Thai, Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and the Thaksin brand that really counts.

The police general's strong point is also his weakness. His affiliation with Pheu Thai is a big disadvantage for voters who have always cast their ballot for the Democrats. He is seen as a "nominee" of the Yingluck government, whose party failed to win a majority in the capital.

Nobody knows if the mood of Bangkok voters has shifted under the Yingluck government. And that's what makes this contest meaningful and exciting. In more ways than one, this gubernatorial election will be a major popularity test for Yingluck herself. A defeat would be a major blow, but a victory would be a big boost for the whole government.

For Sukhumbhand, the struggle to get re-elected will be much tougher than he had previously thought. The Democrat Party's executive committee was split over his nomination, and polls have shown that his performance in the past four years hasn't impressed enough people to hand him an easy second term.

He has campaigned hard by underlining the importance of having a Bangkok governor who can stand up to a central government run by another party.

"If you want a governor who belongs to the same party as the central government, then there is no need for an election. We can just revert to the old system of having the governor appointed by the government," Sukhumbhand argued. He insists that a governor from the opposition party can serve as an effective balance against the powers-that-be in Government House.

PM Yingluck and her top Cabinet members, as well as Sudarat Kayurapan, who has been dragged into the fray despite her initial reluctance, have come out in full force to campaign for Pongspat. She is known to be in control of a strong political base among members of Bangkok's legislative assembly - and was in fact the first choice among some Pheu Thai members as the most likely candidate to beat Sukhumbhand.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has also launched a full-scale campaign on Sukhumbhand's behalf. While the opposition leader can expect strong support from the Democrat Party's old electoral base, it's going to be an uphill task to stem Pongspat's surge. The strongly worded accusation by the Department of Special Investigation against him over the deaths of anti-government protesters when he was premier could have some negative impact on Abhisit's ability to convince voters to remain loyal to the Democrats.

A Democrat win in this election will underscore the opposition's ability to maintain its political stronghold among the urban middle class. But if Pongspat wins, the political fallout will be far greater than the ripple felt in Bangkok.

If Pheu Thai wins in the capital this time, it will be emboldened enough to move ahead with some of its controversial campaigns, including constitutional amendments and the pursuit of an amnesty bill. If that should come to pass, things will hot up at the national level yet again.