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In-Your-Face Politics
Samak's no-nonsense style wins the capital

Samak Sundaravej just turned Thai politics on its head. The feisty 65-year-old, a lifelong veteran of the rough-and-tumble world of Bangkok elections, is a no-nonsense, conservative loudmouth who is alleged to have been supportive of past military coups. He served in the widely disparaged administration of Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh that plunged Thailand into the economic crisis in 1997. That same year, Samak led his small Thai Citizens Party into abstaining from voting for the country's landmark constitutional reforms. In short, he is a right-wing dinosaur who epitomizes all that Thailand's reformed, new-generation political scene is supposed to have consigned to the trash can of history.

Yet on July 23, Samak annihilated his opponents to win the Bangkok governorship with a record-breaking one million votes, almost twice the total of the other 22 candidates combined. A strong contender, Samak had been expected to do well, but the final result stunned everyone. "It was not a surprise that Samak won, but no one suspected that he would win by such a big margin," says Weerasak Kowsurat, an adviser to former prime minister Banharn Silapa-archa.

Fellow politicians and analysts scrambled for explanations. Some suggested that since Samak is nearing the end of his political career, a sympathy factor kicked in and increased his appeal as a seasoned son of the city fighting a final battle. "Samak is more experienced," says Weerasak. "Voters have known him a long time. They know his work and his face."

Certainly, Samak is viewed as a forceful and passionate advocate of the city. Says businessman Udomsak Wongwilai: "Bangkok people prefer someone who speaks their mind and gets things done." Name recognition was a strong factor, given that the Democrat Party of PM Chuan Leekpai did not field a high-profile candidate. The other contenders comprised a lackluster bunch, leaving Sudarat Keyuraphan, the wonder woman of tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party, as the sole credible rival to Samak.

Sudarat kicked off her campaign early. It was in full swing even before Samak and most other candidates had decided to run. By the time the race officially began in mid-June, Sudarat and Samak were level with about 30% support each. With Thailand's reformist sentiment favoring younger, fresher faces, and with Thaksin's war chest and PR advisers behind her, many felt Sudarat would soon sprint ahead of Samak. In her party, there was a mood of overwhelming confidence, if not smugness.

Instead, Sudarat's campaign went into freefall, while Samak's soared. "Samak has character and Thai people like to see that," notes Democrat Sirinun Senakant. "He dares to speak out, to confront. He'll point in your face." That trait has often landed Samak in hot water, so this time he wisely declined to debate on the same platform with the other contenders. That riled Sudarat, who began to appear bitter and tense. "Compared with Samak, Sudarat is still an amateur in Bangkok politics," says Udomsak.

Sudarat's campaign further disintegrated amid reports of rifts within the Thaksin camp. Sirinun asserts: "Some people in Thai Rak Thai do not like her." Then allegations of vote-buying by the Thaksin team surfaced in the local media. "I heard people say they are voting against Sudarat because it's a vote against Thai Rak Thai," says one diplomat. "They like her, but they are upset at the party's behavior." The final straw was a bomb blast at one of Samak's rallies. That solidified support for the front-runner, who offered to pay medical expenses for those injured in the explosion. Sudarat publicly broke down and cried at the setback, reinforcing the gender bias of many voters.

Sudarat's defeat now leaves Thaksin and his party with some soul-searching to do. They had campaigned so publicly for Sudarat in what is their heartland constituency: the urban middle class. Yet they came a distant second. "It shows Thaksin is not quite so strong in Bangkok," says Udomsak. Along with the allegations of vote-buying, all this threatens to damage Thaksin's chances of becoming PM in the general election due later this year.

Pracha Guna-kasem of Thai Rak Thai demurs: "Losing a battle does not mean you will lose the war. It may make Bangkok seats a bit more difficult for us to win, but we will still do well." Some question whether the city race is a good pointer to the coming national polls. "Bangkok people know how to select a candidate for a particular job," says Pornsak Phongphaew, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "Here, they were electing a governor. It could be different when they are electing MPs. I still think the general election will be between the Democrats and Thai Rak Thai."

Indeed, the key point may be that Samak won because he is not tied to — and has no love for — either the Democrat Party or Thai Rak Thai. Bangkok voters sensed that the fearless and independent Samak was the best bet for someone who would stand up and fight for their city. "We need balance," says Pornsak. "That's why the election of Samak is good." Certainly, Samak was the best political campaigner of all the candidates and on that basis deserved to win. Says Sirinun: "Since this will probably be his last post, he will work hard to leave a good record." As for the Democrats — and whoever wins the general election — they will just have to learn to live with this outspoken old dinosaur.

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