JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3
to the Line
gubernatorial race is more about personal ambition than any real effort
to fix the city's problems
By ROBERT HORN Bangkok
Bhichit Rattakul has had enough. When he was elected Governor of Bangkok
in 1996, the public didn't expect much from the man known as "Dr. Joe."
He was an independent candidate who pledged to take on the seemingly impossible
mission of cleaning up the Thai capital's polluted environment. Once elected,
Bhichit was relentless. He cracked down on dust-spewing construction sites,
vehicles belching black exhaust and markets selling tainted food. While
his success was limited, his determination was admired. The people of
Bangkok, notorious for turning on politicians who don't deliver, gave
the Governor a 73% approval rating late last year. But in this Sunday's
gubernatorial election, Bhichit refused to run. "He's just worn out,"
said an aide.
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For all its charms, Bangkok is in many ways Asia's ultimate urban nightmare.
Its streets are chaotic, its canals are cesspools, its air deadly and
traffic jams hellish. Anyone trying to govern its 10 million inhabitants
is caught between a corrupt municipal bureaucracy and a national government
reluctant to relinquish control of most city services. "I have to deal
with 17 different federal agencies to get anything done," Bhichit once
complained. Traffic tie-ups alone cost the city as much as $1 billion
a year in lost productivity and wasted fuel. As businesses and tourists
go elsewhere, Bangkok remains stalled in the ranks of Asia's second-class
cities. "People are desperate for someone who can effectively govern this
place," says Pravit Rojanaphruk, a member of Bangkok Forum, a community
and environmental advocacy group.
edition's table of contents
Nearly two dozen candidates for governor think they can do the job. As
usual, there are a few eccentric no-hopers, including a former flight
attendant with an unrequited passion for Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai;
she wants to expose his marriage as a sham and test his son's dna. Although
embarrassing, her candidacy is part of a significant development: this
is the first time women have run for Governor, and twoSudarat Keyuraphan
and Paveena Hongsakulare among the leaders.
Sudarat, a 40-year-old deputy leader of telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's
Thai Rak Thai party topped opinion polls earlier this year. On her heels
was the Chart Pattana Party's Paveena, known for championing women's rights
and rescuing abused children. But both women have plummeted in popularity
since the April entrance into the race of Samak Sundaravej, the Thai political
alpha male. A combative right-winger, the 65-year-old, three-time Deputy
Prime Minister had been regarded as a spent force. His Thai Citizen's
Party was close to extinction. Then, Samak says, a newspaper columnist
told him if he ran for Governor, he would win. He's now tallying about
45% in some polls, with Sudarat just under 20%. "The people know me,"
Samak explains. "They know my experience. They know my hands are clean."
Not everyone agrees. Giles Ungphakorn, professor of political science
at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, has publicly questioned Samak's
role in a massacre of students at Thammasat University on Oct. 6, 1976
by police and right-wing vigilantes. (The candidate denies the charge
and is suing the professor for libel.) Samak also supported the military
when it shot democracy demonstrators in the capital in May 1992.
So why is this man so popular in Bangkok? For one thing, he is a brilliant
speaker, and his acid-tongued attacks on opponents play well with the
poor. Sopon Pornchokchai, author of Bangkok Slums, a 1994 study of conditions
in the capital's slum communities, offers another explanation: "The middle-class
has grown more conservative since the economic meltdown." But many of
Samak's supporters have reservations. "I'll vote for him because he knows
the city," says Pornsuk Taweephol, a legal secretary. "But I don't know
if he'll be good because he fights with everyone."
That could be a costly habit. After national elections sometime this fall,
the government will likely be led by Chuan's Democrats or Thaksin's Thai
Rak Thai. The governor needs a good relationship with them to be effective.
"But Chuan and the Democrats hate him," says political science professor
Anusorn Limmanee of Chulalongkorn, and bad blood is building between Samak
and Thai Rak Thai, which he has portrayed as a party of the rich. Anti-Samak
sentiments turned ugly last Thursday, when a car bomb exploded at one
of his rallies, injuring seven people. Samak was unharmed, and police
said they weren't sure he was the target.
While trading barbs, none of the leading candidates has made the environment
a priority, even though most voters say it's theirs. Samak admits his
plan to build a ring railway linked to 18 new satellite towns is beyond
the scope of the Governor. Few believe Sudarat's proposals to buy electric
buses and float parks in the river are practical. "This election is about
their own political ambitions and those of their parties. Their commitment
to the city is secondary," says Pravit of the Bangkok Forum. "The whole
thing is a mess." Certainly no change there.
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