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JULY 24, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 3

Lumbering to the Line
Bangkok's 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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No wonder. 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.

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 two—Sudarat Keyuraphan and Paveena Hongsakul—are 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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