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  • Bangkok:Two Cities
  • Petra Desatova (bio)

Bangkok delivered one of the biggest surprises of Thailand's March 2019 election, with the capital's fickle voters amplifying larger national trends. Though popularly viewed as a stronghold for the storied Democrat Party, the history of Bangkok's elections over the past 40 years has been distinctly mixed. Bangkok voters have shown an unparalleled willingness to embrace new parties—hence the landslide wins by Prachakorn Thai in 1979, Palang Dharma in 1992 and Thai Rak Thai in 2001. It was the Democrats that secured the majority of Bangkok seats in 2007 and 2011, on the strength of backing both from more affluent middle-class voters and low-income inner city communities in districts such as Bang Rak and Khlong Toei. In the 2011 elections, the Democrat Party won 23 out of the capital's 33 constituency seats. Its main rival, Pheu Thai, secured the remaining ten seats.

By contrast, in the March 2019 elections, the Democrat Party failed to secure even a single constituency seat in the capital. Out of 30 seats available, Pheu Thai won nine. The rest were split between two new parties: the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party (12) and the progressive Future Forward Party (9). Only ten of the 30 Democrat candidates polled in the top three positions in their respective constituencies. The remaining constituencies were a three-way battle between Palang Pracharat, Future Forward and Pheu Thai party candidates. Not only did big-name Democrat [End Page 176] candidates such as Huwaideeya Pitsuwan Useng (the younger sister of the late Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai politician who also served as ASEAN secretary-general from 2008 to 2013) and Parit Wacharasindhu (the Oxford-educated nephew of Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva) fail to get elected, they failed to even place third in their respective constituencies.

In terms of actual votes, the Democrat Party did not fare any better. It came in fourth across the capital with 474,820 votes.1 This was an underwhelming performance for a party that had hitherto dominated Bangkok. Future Forward won the popular vote with 804,272 votes, while Palang Pracharat came a close second with 791,893 votes. The pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party secured a total of 604,699 votes. The fact that two new political parties—formed just over a year before the 2019 elections—were able to defeat established political juggernauts shows that many Bangkok residents wanted change. There was definitely a strong sense of "old" versus "new" politics in Bangkok in the run up to the 2019 election. A number of informants across the Thai political spectrum whom the author talked to prior to the election confirmed that many Thais were tired of the politically turbulent 2000s and 2010s.2 For these informants, voting for the Democrats or Pheu Thai would mean a return to the "old" politics characterized by parliamentary bickering, public discontent and street protests. Both Palang Pracharat and Future Forward were aware of these public sentiments and used them to their advantage in the 2019 elections. For example, three of my informants knew or had heard of people who were going to vote for Palang Pracharat because they appreciated the junta-imposed values of peace and order.3 Less than a week before the election, fresh stickers started to appear on Palang Pracharat campaign posters all over Bangkok urging voters to vote for Prime Minister General (retired) Prayut Chan-ocha—the party's sole prime ministerial candidate—if they wanted peace.4 Peace effectively became part of Palang Pracharat's electoral platform.

The Democrats' poor electoral performance in Bangkok can be partly explained in terms of the party's brand identity crisis that coincided with the rise of new political parties.5 Following the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in the early 2000s, the Democrats rolled back on their liberal democratic values and joined Thailand's traditional elites—the monarchy, military and senior bureaucrats—in the fight against Thaksin. By the time of the 2014 military coup, the Democrats were one of the two major parties dominating Thai politics—the other one being Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party (2008–present) and its [End Page 177] two precursors, the...