A woman casts her ballot in Bangkok’s gubernatorial elections at a polling station at Debsirin School in Pomprap Sattruphai District on Sunday. (photo by AFP)
After nine long years, Bangkok’s 4.4 million voters finally have the chance to elect a governor from a diverse pool of candidates on Sunday.
However, the intense competition may have led to misconceptions about the job description of the governor of Bangkok, who has few powers of his own and should excel in coordination skills, according to political experts.
The colorful campaign ads and speeches of some high profile candidates could have misled people into thinking they were in the middle of a general election.
Distorted image of homework
The ads may have painted a larger-than-life image of the candidates and voters shouldn’t get too excited, warned Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Rangsit University.
Bangkok voters’ expectations of the governor – that he could cut the cost of living or reduce energy prices – may have been exaggerated.
“It’s a misconception that conveys a distorted reality about what the governor of Bangkok can do,” he said.
The governor’s authority is limited because the power structure of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) lays down his direct responsibilities such as garbage collection and use of public spaces.
Given the Covid-19 pandemic and the state of the economy, Wanwichit said the honeymoon period for the new governor will be short.
The state of the economy may force the new governor to look the other way rather than immediately address issues such as illegal occupancy of trails by vendors struggling to make ends meet. In this case, the governor’s public relations team will have a tough job convincing voters that campaign promises may take some time to materialize.
Final checks: Officials fill the Don Muang district office as they organize paperwork ahead of Bangkok’s gubernatorial election, the first in nine years, and city council elections. (Photo: Apichit Jinakul)
Voters rely on the candidate they elect to be pragmatic and focused on solving the city’s problems. They are less interested in “strategic” voting where voters are persuaded to vote for a specific candidate among those who share the same political ideology to increase the bloc’s chances of victory.
To adopt such a strategy is to overlook a candidate’s ability, Mr Wanwichit said.
“Bangkok voters are particular when it comes to issues such as the environment, infrastructure, flooding, PM 2.5 dust pollution and even burying power cables to beautify the landscape.
“They’ve waited nine years for the governor to come and fix it for them. It’s unthinkable to consider strategic voting at this point,” he said.
He added that people could be encouraged to vote by remembering the 1992 Black May uprising and the eighth anniversary of the May 22, 2014 coup organized by the National Council for Peace and Order, today gone, who overthrew the Pheu Thai Party-led administration.
He predicts high turnout as Bangkok council elections, which could build a base of political support for future general elections, also take place on Sunday.
Mr Wanwichit said the credentials of some Bangkok council candidates are comparable to those of MP candidates, suggesting they may aspire to run in the next general election.
The main opposition Pheu Thai party could bank on its councilor candidates to shore up its stronghold in Bangkok and help its aim of a landslide victory in the next general election due later this year or early next year.
Yutthaporn Isarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said voters are looking for a governor who can tackle PM 2.5 fine dust pollution, flooding and traffic jams, which are among the most pressing issues.
He agreed that voter expectations sometimes far exceed what the governor of Bangkok is authorized to deliver.
Although the BMA assumes the status of a large-scale local administrative organization with an annual budget of 80 billion baht and staffed with tens of thousands of civil servants, its legal scope is similar to that of a municipality. Where thessaban.
The governor liaises with other state agencies when they need to resolve an issue. For example, the BMA knows that PM 2.5 dust pollution is created by vehicles belching exhaust smoke. But he is powerless to catch motorists who smoke since the authority rests with the police.
Also, not all roads in the capital belong to the BMA. Many are operated by the Department of Highways, the Highway Authority of Thailand or the Department of Rural Roads.
With the floods, the BMA has to seek help from the Department of Public Works and Land Use Planning.
Mr Yutthaporn said voter turnout could reach 70%, surpassing the all-time high of 63% in the 2013 gubernatorial poll. He said people could be excited to go to the polls for the first times in nine years and the improvement of the pandemic situation.
Mr Yutthaporn said gubernatorial candidates who made outlandish promises should prepare for a backlash, as social media users are adept at digging up evidence where those promises have not been kept.
Broken promises could harm the popularity not only of a candidate, but also of the party that may be pulling his strings, even if such a candidate claims to be running as an independent.
No dramatic changes
Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at the King Prajadhipok Institute, said he did not think voters were hoping for dramatic change. They wanted the governor to be efficient in taking care of practical tasks such as collecting garbage on time or expanding green spaces.
“People in Bangkok want a better quality of life. They might better understand what the governor’s job entails after going through several elections.
“Voters’ expectations of the new governor are high. The governor must be sensitive to people’s needs, approachable and responsive to residents’ suggestions,” he said.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about attempts to question the credibility of candidates in the run-up to the election as long as the information was not fabricated.
He believed that many new faces would be elected to the Bangkok council, while familiar politicians formerly tied to one party could also enter new political groups.
walk the walk
Pawaran Jitrattanasophon, former secretary of the Uncommon International Group and public relations officer of the Students’ Association of Thailand, said an ideal governor in the eyes of new voters must be practical and do as promised.
“They have to talk and walk,” said Ms Pawaran, who represents new voters.
Many new voters are aware of Sunday’s election and will be out in force to vote. They closely followed the candidates’ campaigns.
They will keep their eyes open for any irregularities and will not hesitate to speak out, Ms Pawaran said. Information passed to new voters through various channels could influence their decisions at the polls, she added.
Yada Phonphetrampha, head of the Bangkok Vendors and Peddlers Association, said city hall was determined to ban sidewalk micro-commerce in places previously designated as eviction-free.
“Street vending is the sole source of income for countless families and is part of Bangkok’s charm,” she said.
Before the BMA regulates providers, it should open a forum and let all stakeholders participate in finding a solution.
The new governor must manage retail spaces in a way that keeps the roadway clean and avoids obstructing pedestrians, she said.
Once the ‘line’ was drawn, Ms Yada insisted vendors would not cross it as it would expose them to extortion from officials.
Since 2016, the BMA has canceled 683 of 773 “exempt” spots across the city. With over 200,000 street vendors setting up their stalls, most are operating illegally.