, BANGKOK, Mar 3- Bangkok residents went to the polls Sunday to elect a governor in a to-the-wire fight for city hall which has re-opened Thailand’s festering political divisions.
Some 4.3 million Bangkokians are eligible to vote in an election which could see a shift in power from the royalist Democrat party, which has held the capital for nearly a decade, to the ruling Puea Thai party, which is backed by “Red Shirt” supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
A win for the Puea Thai candidate, media-friendly former top policeman Pongsapat Pongcharoen, would see the party claim a key political foothold in the capital and expand on its rural, mainly poor, base.
With its legions of middle-class voters Bangkok has long been a stronghold for the pro-establishment Democrats, but polls over recent weeks indicate its candidate Sukhumbhand Paribatra — a former deputy foreign minister — may fall short in his bid to return to city hall.
National politics over recent years has been dominated by the power struggle between the Democrats and Puea Thai, the party of controversial self-exiled tycoon Thaksin whose sister Yingluck is current prime minister.
Bangkok has seen several bouts of serious political unrest, the worst ending in the deaths of around 90 people in a series of street clashes between Red Shirt demonstrators and security forces in May 2010.
Sukhumbhand was governor at the time of the clashes, which saw parts of the city’s shopping and commercial centre brought to a standstill.
But the Election Commission overseeing Sunday’s poll said it was free of controversy so far.
“There have been no reports of any violation of election laws… and I’m confident there will be no problems,” according to EC member Thaweesak Toochinda.
Local media reports said the EC had predicted a high turnout of around 60 percent.
The leading candidates have wooed voters with promises to reduce the capital’s notoriously gridlocked roads, boost public transport and introduce more green spaces to the traffic-choked city of 10 million.
Other candidates include former national police chief Sereepisuth Temeeyaves and a one-time singer turned radio DJ Suharit Siamwalla who has campaigned on environmental issues, including boosting cycling in the city.