Laying siege to the City of Angels
The appointment of Sakoltee Phattiyakul as deputy governor of Bangkok by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha through the use of Section 44 has been seen as a move by the regime to take control of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and pave a path towards securing votes in the capital for the election in the near future.
Mr Sakoltee is no newcomer to our politics. He is the son of Gen Vinai Phattiyakul, ex-secretary general of the National Security Council, who is well connected and highly regarded in the intelligence community. Gen Vinai is considered part of the technocratic old guard which initially supported Thaksin Shinawatra, but later became distrustful of Thaksin’s ambitions and helped to bring about his downfall.
Upon joining the Democrat Party, Mr Sakoltee was elected a member of parliament for Bangkok in 2007 but failed in the election of 2011. In 2013, he joined the thenPeople’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) created by Suthep Thaugsuban as an instrument of mass protest against the Pheu Thai-led government. The chaos created by the PDRC’s method of protest, including the infamous “Shutdown Bangkok” campaign, provided the excuse for the military to stage its coup of 2014.
But why Mr Sakoltee and why now? The governor of Bangkok has been an elected position since 1985. In 2016, the National Council for Peace and Order (NPCO) dismissed MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, an elected governor under the Democrat Party banner, by the power of Section 44. The NPCO broke the system under the pretence of corruption allegations against MR Sukhumbhand who was replaced by Pol Gen Aswin Kwanmuang, his deputy. That move gave the NCPO complete control over the BMA.
But to this day, the NCPO has not advanced cases against MR Sukhumbhand and remains unclear what to do with the local administration law — reform it or not. More importantly, the NCPO has yet to provide a clear roadmap and timetable for a return of democracy to the capital.
At stake is the political infrastructure of the BMA which could be utilised to favour candidates in local and national elections.
With changing demographics, the capital now has 30 MP seats up for grabs. In the past, the sustaining force was the Democrats. But from time to time the tide turned and they were swept aside, from Samak Sundaravej’s Prachakorn Thai Party in 1979 (29 out of 32 seats) to Chamlong Srimuang’s Palang Dharma in 1991 (32 out of 35 seats) and of course, to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001 (28 out of 37 seats) and 2005 (32 out of 37 seats).
The Democrats staged a comeback when Bangkokians became disillusioned with Thaksin. They elected a Democrat as Bangkok governor, first Apirak Kosayodhin (2004-2008), and then MR Sukhumbhand (2009—2016). The majority of Bangkok MPs were Democrats, 27 out of 36 seats and 23 out of 33 seats in the 2007 and 2011 elections, respectively.
After four years of NCPO rule, however, the political landscape in Bangkok is in flux, with four parties vying for the hearts and minds of Bangkokians and slices of the 30-seat MP pie.
First, the old guard, Pheu Thai and the Democrats.
For Pheu Thai, Bangkok is under the supervision of veteran Bangkok politician Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan who has won and lost many Bangkok elections since her Palang Dharma days. She still holds a strong base in Eastern Bangkok, but Pheu Thai’s image in the eyes of Bangkokians is tainted. A return to the glory days of Thai Rak Thai is hard to imagine.
One, of course, can never rule the veteran politician out. She is one tough lady. But the odds are against her and Pheu Thai. In the coming year before the election, Khunying Sudarat has to challenge for the party leadership and then convince voters in Bangkok — both no easy task. As Pheu Thai’s resources will be put to securing their stronghold in the North and Northeast, Bangkok may become an afterthought. The party is unlikely to win more than the 10 seats they won in 2011, and they may have to live with even less.
The Democrats are under more stress. Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is trying to reposition the party’s image and inject new blood through young recruits like his nephew, Parit Wacharasindhu. But the public’s distrust of politicians in general, and especially those who were a direct party to past political conflicts like Mr Abhisit, is hard to erase.
The Democrats thus have a leadership issue, no less than Pheu Thai’s, to deal with. The main challenge comes from the PDRC faction within the party and also the PDRC breakaways trying to establish a new party or join with a party favourable to the present regime, for instance, Palang Pracharat Party.
Palang Pracharat aims to win in Bangkok to shore up its legitimacy. It needs on-theground political machinery to get actual votes. That is why Mr Sakoltee has been sent to help run the BMA — to build and wield political favours — while governor Aswin plays the front man role.
The siege is laid. Eventually, Mr Sakoltee could become BMA governor himself, through an election or another Section 44 order. That will be up to the political balance in the future.
Palang Pracharat is also betting on the PDRC’s base support among the Bangkok middle class “whistleblowers” who are disillusioned with the Democrats and may consider the new faces of a technocratic probusiness political party like Palang Pracharat is aiming to become.
The final party which has the potential to secure seats in Bangkok is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party. The party has a young blood image and a leadership with clear democratic ideals which have attracted Bangkokians’ attention. However, they have yet to build the machinery to secure votes and turn hopes into reality.
As Mr Thanathorn looks for fresh faces to join his cause, it is essential that he works through the existing pool of politicians with a strong constituency base. They will provide a necessary shortcut to building an effective party organisation. This means he may have to work with, and even recruit, those in Pheu Thai or the Democrats who feel left out and. He could also form an alliance with Khunying Sudarat, who is rumoured to be contemplating the option of breaking away herself if not selected to become party leader. Mr Thanathorn could also work with Pheu Thai openly under the banner of democracy and resisting the continuance of NCPO rule.
The Bangkok political landscape will be fluid till election day comes.