Analysis: Sukhumbhand's Bangkok election win a new chance for Thai Democrats

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 4, 2013 The election victory of incumbent Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra is good news for the Democrat Party, but is it good news from Bangkok? asks Saksith Saiyasombut.

Shortly after voting ended at 3pm on Sunday, all the exit polls projected a victory for the main challenger, Pongsapat Pongcharoen of the Pheu Thai Party (PT), signaling an electoral watershed moment in the relatively young history of Bangkok gubernatorial elections. If the polls had been correct, it would have been PT's first victory in the Thai capital.

But as the actual votes were being counted throughout the afternoon, it became more and more obvious that incumbent Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra and the Democrat Party were going to hold one their last electoral bastions, despite his many critics, who spoke of him being a reluctant pick by his party, lacking charisma, and lacking fire at his campaign events.

"Real men wait for the real results," said Sukhumband of the exit polls. In fact, history had a lesson to teach. The gubernatorial elections of 2009 and 2004 were won by his party after the exit polls predicted defeat.

Bangkok Gubernatorial Elections 2013 - Unofficial Results (100% in)

1. Sukhumbhand Paribatra (Democrat Party - No. 16): 1,256,231 votes / 46.23% 2. Pongsapat Pongcharoen (Pheu Thai Party - 9): 1,077,899 / 39.69% 3. Seripisut Temiyavet (Independent - 11): 166,582 / 6.13% 4. Suharit Siamwalla (Independent - 17): 78,825 / 2.90% 5. Kosit Suwinijjit (Independent - 10): 28,640 / 1.05% -. Others: 20,058

Total votes: 2,715,640 Eligible voters: 4,244,465 Voter turnout: 63.98%

Source: Bangkok Metropolitan Authority / Election Commission Thailand

As soon as Sukhumbhand passed the mark of 1 million votes shortly after 6pm, the gap had become too much for a Pongsapat comeback. Pongsapat had a good, media-savy campaign. He was also careful not to mention Thaksin, as he would have startled his political enemies and potentially have scared away undecided voters - the violence and carnage of the crackdown on the anti-government red shirts protests of 2010 is still being blamed on them and the former prime minister, something the Democrat Party would remind again and again.

Pongsapat tried to present himself as a new fresh face for the city, but it was not enough. So it was just a matter of minutes until he addressed the press and his supporters with prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and conceded. Both were gracious enough in their defeat to congratulate Sukhumbhand and pledged to work together with the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA). Shortly after that in his victory speech, Sukhumbhand repeated this notion and also reached out to all those who didn't vote for him.

But while Sukhumband broke the record for most popular votes in a Bangkok gubernatorial election (overtaking the late Samak Sundaravej's victory in 2000) and the voter turnout was substantially higher (62.2% compared to 51% in 2009) does not change much in the Thai capital. Although about 12 million people call this city their home, only about 5 million are actually registered to vote here. Only 4.2 million were eligible to vote and to decide the future of Bangkok for the other two-thirds.

Bangkok may be the only province where its people can elect their governor, but the question remains how much power the BMA actually has to improve the quality of life, given its limited annual budget (reportedly only $2bn and with majority already covering running costs), which is overlooked by the Interior Ministry. Many of the issues that concern the BMA clash with the powers of national ministries. Whether it is dangling power poles to be buried underground, the prices on municipal busses, the various public transport systems, or competencies over flood prevention measures - all these fall under federal authority, despite the lofty campaign promises by all candidates ("Monorail", anyone?).

This local election highlights the central role Bangkok plays in Thailand. And while the ongoing political divide played a lesser role in this campaign, the discrepancies between the capital and the rest of the country still exist. Given how that most residents are seemingly registered elsewhere, the stakeholders need to look beyond the city again.

While Sunday's defeat is not a disaster for the ruling Pheu Thai Party, it should not exploit its position to block or overrule the BMA at the cost of the city.  This is the chance for cooperation and co-existence.

Governor Sukhumbhand is the unlikely winner of the election, considering various failures during his last term - conflicts during the floods of 2011 and ending at the Futsal arena fiasco. Sukhumbhand has been given a second chance to rule the capital, but for the Democrat Party it is the very last chance.

Thai Floods: At Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate, a microcosm of conflict


Originally published at Siam Voices on November 7, 2011

Things seem calm on the bridge overlooking the Klong (Canal) Sam Wa Sluice Gate on the Eastern border of Bangkok. Just a few dozens of onlookers observe the water streaming through the gate through the gaps left and right, while around police officers take their lunch break under large tents. On the day before (Monday, Oct 31) that however, things seemed less than calm:

In one incident, parts of which were broadcast on local television news, a large group of angry residents in the Min Buri section of eastern Bangkok staged a rally starting Sunday to force the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to open a floodgate to drain water to the large Saen Saep canal nearby. Later, the residents marched to the floodgate and tried to destroy a concrete gate and sandbag wall around it with sledgehammers.

The residents complained that floodwaters are growing increasingly unhealthy, with rotten smells. But officials have said there’s a limit to how much water they can release because of the need to protect key economic assets in the area, including a market and the Bang Chan industrial estate nearby. Later, officials agreed to raise the gate some to drain off some water, and the residents backed down.

"Frustrations Rising with Floodwaters in Thailand", Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2011

There was scuffling between local residents and the police (see footage here), the one side unleashing their anger of being left alone to the force of nature and the other protecting one of the last flood barriers preventing the high tides flushing into the canals of inner Bangkok.

"We understand the anger of the people," says Somkuan Puengsap, a police colonel overlooking a 100-man strong police force to protect the gate from further damage. "The problem is, we police officers have no rights to open the sluice gates by ourselves," Somkuan continued, "We are only there to acknowledge the problem and try to mediate between the two conflicting parties."

Somkuan admitted that he has never seen anything like this before, as flooding has never been a problem in this area. Other police officers who requested to be unnamed have expressed their frustration that they are at the receiving end of political games between the government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Bangkok governor Sukhamband Paribatra. The latter's Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) has been overruled by the federal government, when...

The prime minister invoked the disaster prevention law on Oct 21 to take full control of all flood operations as runoff from the North started surging into Bangkok. "I have ordered a committee to negotiate with residents [living upstream] to narrow the gate so that less overflow will enter Bangkok," she said.

Ms Yingluck said the gate had to be narrowed to regulate water flow. "We are talking to residents and we believe they will cooperate," she said. On Monday she ordered the BMA to widen the sluice gate to one metre after angry protesters destroyed parts of it while police officers looked on.

"PM backs down on sluice gate", Bangkok Post, November 3, 2011

The same feeling is shared by one resident North in viewing distance of the gate. Sitting crossed-legged on a stone bench, Thamon Yangprasert appeared calm and relaxed, overseeing the canal, which has overspilled to the sides knee-high. But when asked about how this could all happen, he lashed out against the political opponents of the Pheu Thai Party-led government: "It all comes down to politics! The Democrat Party (which Sukhumband belongs to), they want to remove Yingluck as prime minister."

"They have been stalling that water everywhere, in Ayutthaya, Wang Noi, they have put up barriers, so it cannot get into Bangkok. They are playing a cruel joke, because all the people out in the provinces are all red shirts! Nobody has voted for them! And now they want to remove Yingluck," he continues, hinting at the (small) possibility of what has been coined a 'water coup', whereas the Yingluck administration gets blamed for the slow flood relief efforts, opening the chance for the military to take take over.

Residents on the South side of the gate are now sharing the pain with their neighbors. "I didn’t mind them demanding to open up the gates. But then they started to chop off parts of the gate and they are still not happy enough, they demanded even more. The water level now is not how it’s supposed to be – I can accept that, but when they said they want it to be completely opened up, that I cannot accept," says Pimon Jeanjuer, as his house and property is now flooded as well.

While Pimon can understand their frustrations, he criticizes them of being short-sighted as his son's job in an industrial park in Ban Chan, along the Klong San Saeb, is now threatened to be flooded as well. Locals have gathered to discuss the situation and also to counter demands by other residents to fully open the gate, as they have prepared a letter to the officials explaining their side. That would be the first time that they would have gotten in contact with an official - a sense of abandonment is felt on both sides of the fence, as both Thanom and Pimon say that nobody from the BMA or other local authorities have showed up before to explain the situation to the residents.

While the gate has been fixed now, some say that the inner city of Bangkok is now at risk as the Klong Sam Wa flows directly into the Klong San Saeb, a vital canal leading into inner heart of the city, including the Sukhumvit area. Dr Seree Supharatid, Director of the Disaster Warning Centre at Rangsit University, argues on Thai television that this Klong will "definitely be not able to hold the mass of water coming in from the North" and predicts overflow of "no higher than one meter".

The area surrounding Klong Sam Wa Sluice Gate is already flooded with badly smelling water. The contention in the community reflects a microcosm of conflict to save the center of the capital, while the outskirts bear the brunt of the deluge: the neighborhood South of the gate is angry at the local authorities for giving in to the protesters, while those opposite in the North feel that their area has sacrificed to protect the water from gushing into inner Bangkok. Either way, they cannot shake off their feeling that they have been victims of a political scuffle between the government and the BMA.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.