BANGKOK— Bangkok’s voters go to the polls Sunday to elect a new governor for the Thai capital city of 10 million people. The close campaign is being seen by analysts as a key benchmark for Thailand’s political landscape that has been divided since the 2011 national elections.
At a political rally in central Bangkok, Democrat Party supporters of incumbent governor, Suhkumbhand Paribatra, cheer on their candidate in the final week of campaigning before the March 3 poll.
Sukhumbhand, a former deputy foreign minister, has held office since 2009 but is facing a tough fight from a former police general, Pongsaphat Pongchareon.
Pongsaphat has the backing of the nationally governing Pheu Thai Party led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party won national vote in July 2011.
Sukhumbhand, behind in most opinion polls, admits he faces a tough fight. Bangkok has been a longstanding stronghold of the conservative Democrat Party.
“It’s tougher than last time because the opposition is tougher. It means that I have to work harder and I’m not [leading], so I don’t have the burden of leadership and I have full knowledge that historically early polls have always been weighted against us,” said Sukhumband.
Some 20 candidates are seeking the governor’s post. Campaign promises extend from creating bicycle paths to improving traffic management, waste disposal, and even extending mass transportation systems.
But the powers largely responsible for governing the city’s infrastructure lay with the central government in ministries of transport and roads.
Pheu Thai’s Pongsaphat says a victory for him would allow a closer working relationship with the national government.
“The benefit from the Pheu Thai Party is only one thing, is the Prime Minister [Yingluck] who comes from the Pheu Thai Party," he said. "So if we have something that can work closely we can change Bangkok a lot because a lot of big projects we need more money, we have to link together. The authority of the Bangkok Governor and the budget is very small. We need help from the government to make everything change.”
Bangkok has been a flashpoint for Thailand’s political drama in recent years. In 2011, devastating floods shook confidence in the Pheu Thai-led government. A year earlier, the city was the center of sometimes bloody anti-government political rallies against the Democrat Party.
Some analysts say a Pheu Thai Party win in a city that has been dominated by the Democrats would have broad implications.
Chris Baker is an author and commentator on Thai politics.
“This will be the first reading of the electorate since the last general election and as such both sides see it as somehow being a kind of measurement of how the public have changed or reacted since the last election or to what this [Yingluck] government has done. Both the Democrats and Pheu Thai want a result that they can interpret and publicize in those terms,” he said.
Opponents of Pheu Thai have long accused the party of seeking a way to allow former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return to Thailand. He now lives in exile to avoid a jail term for corruption.
Some see the Bangkok race as a litmus test for Thaksin’s return. Others say that if the city votes for the Pheu Thai candidate, it would allow the national government to move ahead with efforts to reconcile the still deep political divisions in Thailand.
Polls are already indicating a tightening in the race in the final days as more undecided voters move to make a final decision.