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Bangkok Election Reinforces Class Divide

by Joshua Kurlantzick
March 5, 2013

Thailand's prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra prepares to cast her ballot in the election for Bangkok's governor in a polling station in Bangkok March 3, 2013. Thailand's prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra prepares to cast her ballot in the election for Bangkok's governor in a polling station in Bangkok March 3, 2013 (Damir Sagolj/Courtesy Reuters).

On Sunday, Bangkokians turned out in record-breaking numbers to cast their votes in the city’s gubernatorial election—the first such contest since the violent red-shirt protests that engulfed the capital in the spring of 2010. The incumbent MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Democrat Party was elected for a second term with 1.25 million votes. Equally notable was the fact that, for the first time, a runner-up—in this case, Pongsapat Pongcharoen of the Peau Thai party—received more than one million votes. As Bangkok Pundit notes, the mere 178,000 votes that separated the candidates marked the narrowest margin in the history of Bangkok elections.

The mass turnout and narrow margin are indicative of the deep-rooted political divide that has plagued national politics in Thailand for much of the last ten years. In The Nation, Pravit Rojanaphruk writes:

“As for the class-divide issue, the electoral result again reinforced the hypothesis that poor and less educated people tend to support Thaksin (and sister Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai) while those better educated and better off tend to go for the Democrats… Though these elites tend to have difficulties connecting to the masses, their trump card was raising the fear of Thaksin taking over the capital. As a result, Bangkokians have missed the opportunity to hold a proper gubernatorial election and succeeded in making a national political feud part of local politics.”

For all that can be said about the election, its results, and voters’ motivations, the election was a significant litmus test for the state of democracy in Thailand. On Sunday, voters took their gripes to the ballot box—which has not always been the case in Thailand’s recent history. For nearly a decade, Thailand has weathered one street protest after another, with both sides disdaining democratic institutions and refusing to resolve their differences in a voting booth instead of in the streets.

The case of Thailand and its recent democratic regression is hardly unique. In an excerpt from my new book Democracy in Retreat published in the latest issue of Foreign Policy,  I explain how, contrary to public perception in the wake of the Arab Spring, democracy around the developing world has in reality become weaker, less effective, and less supported by the public over the past decade. You can read the entire excerpt on Foreignpolicy.com.

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