Bangkok voters went to the polls Sunday to choose the city's governor in an election overshadowed by political divisiveness that has wracked Thailand for much of the past eight years.
The gubernatorial election is Bangkok's first since the sprawling capital of 10 million was paralyzed for nine weeks by anti-government demonstrators in 2010, leaving at least 90 people dead and more than 1,700 injured. The Red Shirt protesters — mostly rural-based supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — were demanding fresh elections from then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat party.
Bangkok is one of the few strongholds that the Democrats did not lose to the Pheu Thai party, led by Thaksin's sister and current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in the 2011 general election, thanks to the capital's pro-establishment middle class and elite voters.
The Democrats have ruled Bangkok for the past nine years, but now find themselves in a fight with Pheu Thai in an election that could determine their relevance in Thai politics.
"The Bangkok governor election has implications on politics at all levels," Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the Democrat candidate, told reporters on the eve of the vote. "This time the competition is very intense and it has more significance than just getting a governor for the city."
Sukhumbhand is running for his second term as governor after stepping down in early January to give him more time to campaign. Challenged by a 2011 flooding crisis that crippled parts of Bangkok, as well as a few corruption accusations, the 60-year-old politician stands to represent the anti-Thaksin and anti-Red Shirt sentiment among urban voters on behalf of the oldest political party in the country.
Unlike Thailand's other 76 provinces, Bangkok is a special administrative zone, and its governor is directly elected to serve a four-year term. More than 4.3 million people are eligible to vote.
In a bid to snatch the governorship from the Democrats, Pheu Thai fielded a charismatic former assistant national police chief, Pongsapat Pongcharoen. A political novice, Pongsapat has promised a seamless working relationship between Bangkok and the national government.
Pongsapat's work during his police career matches closely with the populist policies that have helped Thaksin-allied parties win past elections.
"If the issues are within the boundaries of Bangkok, I will be the one who thinks and acts. And the government must help me with every way they can," Pongsapat said in a recent television interview.
Opinion polls show Sukhumbhand trailing Pongsapat, whose Pheu Thai party draws most of its support from the rural and urban poor.
One of the issues in the election is the livability of Bangkok, a congested metropolis that has struggled to deal with myriad problems, including heavy traffic. The Yingluck government's policy to woo middle-class voters by giving tax rebates to first-time car buyers has led to about 245,000 cars being added to Bangkok's already-congested roads.
"Right now people want Bangkok to be a more livable city and want to see policies that can offer a better mass transit system, public space and alternative transportation like bicycles," said Prinya Thewanaruemitkul of Thammasat University in Bangkok. "But at the end of the day, national politics will be the deciding factor."