Bangkok has a new governor—is it a sign of change?

Chadchart Sittipunt won the Bangkok governor election in a record-breaking landslide. Will he be able to meet the high expectations of the city’s residents? And is this a foreshadowing of what’s to come in next year’s national elections? 

In 2014, Chadchart Sittipunt was one of the government officials arrested in the coup against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. On May 31, he won the Bangkok gubernatorial race by a landslide. 

Sittipunt is the first governor of the city to be elected in nine years after elections were suspended after the 2014 coup. The former engineer and professor was already a popular choice in the run-up to the elections, and this was further solidified in the fact that he won in every single of Bangkok’s 50 districts. Sittipunt received a record-breaking 1.3 million votes in the election, which took place on May 22, while his closest opponent only garnered around 250,000.  

Sittipunt was certified as the winner of the Bangkok governor election at the end of May. Image: Pornprom Satrabhaya/Bangkok Post

Despite the wide margin, it took the Election Commission a week before he was certified the winner, which drew ire from many people. While the Commission did say that it would confirm his win within 30 days, many called foul when it said it would investigate alleged “irregularities”. A complaint was also levied against Sittipunt by the secretary-general of the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, Srisuwan Janya. The complaint: that Sittipunt had a hidden agenda with his vinyl campaign posters that could be upcycled into bags. 

However, after being inundated with calls from voters and officials also calling putting pressure on the Commission, they certified Sittipunt’s win on May 31. Many have hailed his win as a sign of things to come. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a reporter for Khaosod English, wrote an opinion piece with the headline "Chadhart's Victory Gives Hope to Not Just Bangkok, But Thai Democracy".  

“​​It will be crucial for Chadchart to demonstrate that he can work with others across the aisle, heal the political divide which is toxic, in Bangkok and beyond,” Rojanaphruk writes. “The hopes pinned on him thus reverberate far beyond local Bangkok politics and administration.” 

Sittipunt’s win also sends a clear signal to the current ruling party, the Phalang Pracharath Party, that the people of the capital want change. Out of the 50 city council member seats, they only won two. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst from Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters, “Chadchart's landslide victory is an indictment against all that has transpired since the May 2014 military coup. It's a protest vote against the mismanagement and ineptitude of the military regime since.” 

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst from Chulalongkorn University.

As far as Sittipunt is concerned, however, he wants to be a “governor for everyone” and unite people. In fact, he has even claimed that his arrest at the hands of the junta in 2014 was a thing of the past. “That memory reminds us that, when the people quarrel, hate, and fear each other, eventually there will be a group of people that gain the benefit. We can see things differently without being angry or hating each other,” Prachathai reports him saying. 

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former general who instigated the 2014 coup, was unfazed by Sittipunt’s win, saying that it didn’t reflect the sentiments of the general populace towards his administration. “It is only an election in one province,” he said. Whether he’s correct or not will be seen in the national elections next year. 

Sittipunt is eager to hit the ground running. “Now that we’ve received an order from the people, I would start working right away, visiting communities and areas to see where I could begin my work as soon as I can as a governor. I have a young, energetic team who are keen to move,” he said. 

He’s made a few moves in the past few days: he announced that he’s proposing to do away with mandatory mask-wearing outdoors to the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) and he was also present at the first-ever Pride Parade held in Bangkok on June 6. He has also outlined four urgent issues he wants to tackle straight away: flooding, road safety, and the BTS Skytrain system’s contract, which has been a subject of contention for a while now. However, Sittipunt is starting his term with a limited budget as his predecessor has spent most of the allocated funds for the fiscal year which runs until September 30. That hasn’t bothered Sittipunt though, as he says his policies aren’t expensive. 

A snapshot of Bangkok at night

The new governor faces a number of challenges and the high expectations of the people who voted for him, something one of his deputies, Tavida Kamolvej, acknowledged in an article by Thai PBS. “[Voters] expect the team to deliver tangible results soon,” she said, especially since Sittipunt had been preparing for the last two years to run for governor. 

Whether or not Sittipunt is the “breath of fresh air” that the populace of Bangkok hopes he will be remains to be seen. The same goes for whether this is a sign of what’s to come for the upcoming national elections. The last national elections in 2019 saw military-backed Palang Pracharath back in power, though many accused the elections of being rigged. 

“I won’t disappoint you,” Sittipunt promised. The people of Bangkok will certainly hold him to that. 

Banner image: Chadchart Sittipunt at Bangkok Pride 2022. Source: Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre