The parliamentary by-elections and the Bangkok governor election yesterday represented the first test of political strength for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's coalition government. Although the official outcome of the election has yet to be announced, exit polls suggest the Thai public in general would like the Democrat-led government to continue to run the country after a year of political unrest.
There is a sense of fatigue among the people. They would like the country to move forward, so they have cast their votes to support candidates from the coalition government.
The results in the Bangkok governor election also reflect this sentiment. MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the Democrat candidate, is expected to sweep to victory against Yuranan Pamornmontri of the Pheu Thai Party, and ML Nattakorn Devakula and Kaewsan Atibhodi, who ran as independents, by a wide margin. An exit poll conducted by Sripathum University showed that Sukhumbhand won 55 per cent of the total votes, compared with 28 per cent for Yuranan, 16 per cent for Nattakorn and 5 per cent for Kaewsan.
Sukhumbhand had run an uninspiring campaign. He does not have the charisma of Apirak Kosayodhin, the previous governor from the Democrat Party. Apirak resigned from office after the National Anti-Corruption Commission indicted him in the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's controversial fire-truck scandal. But Sukhumbhand still managed to muster crucial support to send him to the office of the governor of Bangkok.
Earlier, many people were worried he might lose out to Yuranan because Nattakorn and Kaewsan were seen as capable of taking votes away from him. In the previous election three months ago, Apirak garnered almost one million votes compared to 600,000 votes for Prapat Chongsanguan, the candidate from the defunct People Power Party. In that election, Bangkok was nearly split among those who supported the opposition Democrats and those who supported ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This split reflected the broader polarisation of Thai politics.
Sukhumbhand's victory should give Abhisit big relief. It showed the Bangkok middle-class would like the Abhisit government to run the country. So far Abhisit has been criticised for becoming prime minister in a questionable way, following the dissolution of three political parties - the People Power, the Chart Thai and the Matchima Thipataya. Arm-twisting deals in Parliament and support from the military behind the scenes were also crucial in handing Abhisit the premiership.
A faction loyal to Newin Chidchob, a former top lieutenant of Thaksin, switched its support to Abhisit, resulting in a dramatic change in the balance of power in Parliament. Most people did not believe the Abhisit government would last more than a year because it controlled only a small majority in Parliament. Abhisit was voted prime minister with a majority of 37 votes, with the support of 235 lawmakers in the 480-seat lower house of Parliament.
The dissolution of three political parties, which earlier supported ex-prime minister Thaksin, resulted in a combined loss of 29 parliamentary seats in 22 provinces, held by the executive members of the parties. The by-elections were held yesterday to coincide with the Bangkok governor election. There were 83 candidates from 13 political parties vying for the MP seats.
Of the 29 seats at stake in yesterday's polls, 13 belonged to Thaksin allies in the disbanded People's Power Party that led the previous government, and 16 seats were held by the Chart Thai, which was also disbanded. The Matchima Thipataya does not lose any seats because its executive members, who have been barred from politics for five years, are not MPs in the first place. Now the Chart Thai has switched sides to support the Democrat-led government instead.
Even before the ballots were cast, most analysts believed the opposition Pheu Thai Party, the reincarnation of People Power, would not regain more MP seats. A military poll also indicated that candidates from the political parties that are part of the coalition government would gain a total of 21 MPs, compared with 8 for the Pheu Thai. Newin is believed to have been playing a key role in helping the MPs from the coalition gain victory.
Chalerm Yoobamrung, the acting Opposition leader, has obviously toned down his stance, knowing that the by-elections would not help improve the prospects of the Pheu Thai. He admitted the Pheu Thai would win only eight to 10 MPs in the by-elections.
In a way, the by-elections also demonstrate the falling popularity of ex-prime minister Thaksin, who is behind the Pheu Thai. The public have become fed up with the political stalemate. The previous governments of Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat failed to move the country forward. A swing to the Democrat-led government has brought some temporary relief to the country. Now is the time to move forward again.