Lay­ing siege to the City of An­gels

Bangkok Post - - OPINION - Su­ranand Ve­j­ja­jiva was sec­re­tary-gen­eral to the prime min­is­ter dur­ing the Yingluck Shi­nawa­tra gov­ern­ment and is now a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst.

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.

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