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The Bangkok gubernatorial election on 23 July produced an unexpected result when, as The Nation put it, ‘the voters opted to resurrect a dying veteran’.
Samak Sundaravej, leader of the small Prachakorn Thai Party, received an unprecedented 1,016,096 votes - twice the vote of his nearest rival Sudarat Kejuraphan of Thaksin Shinawatr’s Thai Rak Thai Party and four times the vote of the Democrats’ Thavatchai Sajakal. The voter turnout of 58.9% was relatively high.
Samak has a well earned reputation for being blunt to the point of arrogance and has a controversial history as an ultra-rightist who was on the wrong side during military violence in 1976. His party did badly in the last national election and he was widely believed to be on the way out. His victory is especially surprising in sophisticated and progressive Bangkok where the modernist Democrats usually poll well.
The only credible explanation for his victory is that voters wanted a man of action who would do something about quality of life issues in the polluted and congested capital. They were prepared to forget his dubious past and rough manners in the hope that he would make some improvement in their daily lives. The Democrat candidate was seen as vague and inexperienced, and probably suffered from a protest vote because the Democrats are in power nationally. The failure of Thai Rak Thai may be attributed to suspicions of vote buying and old style politics plus the relative inexperience of the candidate.
Speculation is now rife about what all this means for the national elections due in November this year. A poll taken after the election had most of those polled saying that they would not necessarily vote the same way nationally. However, the result was not encouraging for telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatr’s new party. The independent Pollwatch said that 90% of the reported electoral fraud came from one party and the press reported police investigations being undertaken into specific cases involving Thai Rak Thai. If, as seems probable, there is some substance to the claims of massive vote buying by Thaksin, then this will harm his party in the national elections. The Democrats must also be disappointed, but their expectations were not as high as Thaksin’s. Samak’s individual victory is unlikely to help his party nationally.
WATCHPOINT: While we can draw some lessons from the voting for Governor of Bangkok, it is not a clear-cut guide to how Bangkok will vote in national elections in November.
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