BANGKOK – The ruling pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) scooped up another seat on Saturday (June 20) in a by-election in northern Thailand, the first held since the country’s partial lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Mr Wattana Sithiwang beat Mr Pol Lt Somboon Klapachon from the Opposition’s Seri Ruam Thai Party in Lampang province, with over 61,821 votes against 37,781, according to unofficial results released by the Election Commission.
Mr Wattana was originally defeated in the March 2019 general election by Mr Itthirat Chantarasurin, an MP from Pheu Thai, the biggest Opposition Party. Mr Ittirat beat Mr Wattana, the runner up, by over 12,000 votes, but his death in May prompted the by-election.
According to the Pheu Thai Party leader, Mr Ittirat’s father, Mr Pinit Chantarasurin, pulled out of the race to focus on a local election, leaving Pol Lt Somboon, who received merely 2,466 votes and was ranked sixth last year to hold the fort for the Opposition.
“The vote transfer from Pheu Thai supporters to Seri Ruam Thai was not clear. It could be votes from those against the government but not necessarily for the Opposition,” Dr Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, told The Straits Times.
“The Chantarasurins are one of those local political dynasties. But as the Opposition is weakening, a win this time would not make a difference,” he said.null
According to Dr Yuttaporn, the PPRP gained advantage from being the ruling party with policies implemented, and its having Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Promprow, an influential figure in the north, lead the campaign.
Capt Thamanat has been under fire since last year for his drug-related conviction in Australia in the 1990’s. “But local politics is different from politics at the national level. The locals would prioritise what Mr Thamanat had to offer them. It’s part of the patronage system,” said Dr Yuttaporn.
Lampang and the rest of the northern and northeastern regions have been a stronghold of Pheu Thai and its preceding parties for nearly two decades. But the support for the party is dwindling. Government candidates have won four out of five by-elections since last year, three of them by PPRP candidates.
The government coalition initially had a razor thin majority in the Lower House, at 254 against 246, but over the past year has gained a much more comfortable majority of 275 against 212, thanks to defections of Opposition members, the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in February which saw its 11 MPs disqualified, and by-election victories.
Saturday marked the first election since restrictions were implemented in mid-March when cases spiked. With domestic tourism slowly picking up, the lockdown has been gradually lifted since May 3 following a reduction in infections in late April. There have been no local transmissions over the past 26 days.
It was the first election with social distancing rules applied. Election staff wore masks and face shields, as did voters, who also had their temperatures checked, and had to sit or stand at least 1.5 m apart. More polling stations were set up to prevent crowds.
With the risk of the coronavirus, the turnout was 67 per cent of all eligible voters, lower than last year’s 77 per cent.
Hathai Techakitteranun – THE STRAITS TIMES