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Bangkok poll triggers national wave of demand for local democracy

The 2022 Bangkok gubernatorial election, which saw independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt win by a landslide, looks set to change Thailand’s politics in a big way.

Its impacts are now being felt not just in the capital but also in many other parts of the country.

“Bangkok’s political maturity has risen significantly with this gubernatorial election and the capital looks set to become a political model for local administrations elsewhere,” said Asst Prof Dr. Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, a lecturer at Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law.

Calls for the right to elect governors in other provinces across the country have grown amid the immense media focus on the Bangkok gubernatorial race.

At present, only voters in the capital are permitted to elect their governor, while all other provinces must accept governors appointed by the Interior Ministry.

Speaking on the eve of the May 22 election, Prinya said Bangkok would never be the same again because its voters had already learnt so much more about politics from this poll.

What Bangkok election offers

Asst Prof Tavida Kamolvej, dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Political Science, said that by electing their governor, Bangkokians had developed a sense of co-ownership in politics.

“They have become more politically engaged and active. Also, they feel like they own the policies they have supported,” she said.

Tavida noted that Chadchart supports the participation of Bangkok residents in city budgeting and has also vowed to allow people in each Bangkok district to create policies for their own communities.

“Once he implements these policies, he will set standards and a momentum for all of Thailand,” she said.

In contrast to previous elections, the 2022 poll received huge coverage mainly due to the exponential growth of online media outlets in recent years. There are now far more channels for people to follow updates and get details on each candidate.

Media coverage of the polls was also enhanced by new eye-catching gimmicks and formats. Platforms like The Active focused on data, collaborating with Rocket Media Lab to present comprehensive information on how funds are allocated to Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and how this influences its policies.

Other platforms, like TV’s “Woody Live” program, dived deep into the personal life of candidates and ensured voters could see beyond the professional images presented.

Thairath Online, meanwhile, held a special show in which key candidates were interviewed over a meal, so voters could see their interactions in an informal setting.

Dr Stithorn Thananitichot, director of Innovation for Democracy under the King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said his institute had worked with partners including The Matter to develop Politimate – a game that matched the voter-player with the most compatible candidate based on policies.

The game featured 20 questions that made it easier for voters to identify their gubernatorial soulmate.

“With such variety on offer, voters had fun following candidates, who suddenly became so much more accessible,” said Wilaiwan Jongwilaikasaem, a lecturer at Thammasat’s Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Apiwat Ratanawaraha, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s Urban and Regional Planning Department, said candidates like Chadchart and Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn offered not just policies, but also information on how they would implement them.

“So, when coupled with a more diverse range of policies, this election proved interesting,” he said.

Asst Prof Olarn Thinbangtieo, of Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science, said proactive media and voters triggered prompt responses from candidates during campaigning, and this interaction drew Bangkok residents closer to politics.

“Whenever issues popped up on social media, candidates immediately addressed them,” he explained.

Wisesight, a leading social-media analyst, identified at least 196,000 messages in which the Bangkok election was mentioned and millions of likes and other ways of engaging with the poll between February 20 and May 21.

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Will the momentum continue?

Olarn hopes voters will monitor the implementation of Chadchart’s policies to ensure their governor-elect delivers on his promises.

In Prinya’s view, voters’ keen interest in the election shows Bangkokians will most definitely demand to see that the promises are put into action.

“During the campaign period, Bangkokians learned that they must engage in problem-solving to attain real solutions,” the academic said.

Somporn Harnprom, coordinator of Habitat for Humanity Thailand, said his organization would closely follow Chadchart’s administration to see if his policies are being implemented as promised.

“We will also seek opportunities to participate in the problem-solving process,” he said.

Impacts on other provinces

Two recent surveys conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) indicated that the majority of people living in provinces also want to elect their governor.

In the first survey, conducted between April 18 and 20, more than 66 percent of respondents wanted an elected provincial governor instead of an appointed one.

In the second one, which sought voters’ opinions from May 2 to 4, the majority of respondents said they were ready to vote for their governor. About a fifth of the respondents demanded provincial governor elections nationwide, while 33.97 percent said an elected governor would respond better to the needs of locals.

On May 20, a group of Khon Kaen residents wrote to Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha asking for the right to elect their governor. The letter was submitted to Khon Kaen’s appointed governor.

On May 22, Chiang Rai residents unfurled banners making the same demand, in a move that was quickly followed in Chiang Mai and Phuket.

“People living in other big cities have started asking why they are not allowed to choose their own governor,” Olarn said. “Soon, people in small provinces will ask the same question. If Phuket has an elected governor, then [southern neighbor] Songkhla will definitely want one too.”

Assoc Prof Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, agreed that the Bangkok election had spurred a desire in other provinces to vote for their governors.

While the academic does not think gubernatorial elections will be allowed in other provinces anytime soon, she said, “The government will finally feel the ripples.”

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk

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