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Bangkok governor race: The Thaksin factor
Publication Date : 01-03-2013
With two days to go, last-minute campaigning in the Bangkok gubernatorial election is exploiting deep divisions in Thai society.
Two dozen candidates are running for the post of governor on Sunday, though pundits say only two stand a real chance of winning.
Sukhumbhand Paribatra, 60, an independent-minded Democrat, is seeking a second term running the city.
His challenger is Pongsapat Pongcharoen, 57, the former deputy national police chief and a political rookie who is running on the Puea Thai ticket. He has pledged to work "seamlessly" with the central government, riding on public dissatisfaction with Sukhumbhand's previous run-ins with the Puea Thai administration.
Both candidates have criss-crossed the city of eight million over the past two months to woo residents with promises of more green spaces, a cleaner environment and a way out of its choking traffic.
But these local concerns are also coloured by national politics, which centres on support for or against controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup and lives in self-imposed exile abroad. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is now Prime Minister.
In recent weeks, poll after poll has put Pongsapat in the lead, hinting at a possible change in the mindset of Bangkok residents who have never before voted for a governor from Puea Thai or its previous incarnations like the People's Power Party.
The latest survey conducted by Bangkok University in the middle of last month found 34.8 per cent of respondents saying they would vote for Pongsapat and 27.7 per cent backing Sukhumbhand. The undecided formed 18.2 per cent and 10.1 per cent chose to keep mum.
But analysts think Pongsapat is not about to stroll to an easy win. With many voters undecided, Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat said the election is too close to call.
The Democrats have tried to appeal to anti-Thaksin sentiments, telling voters not to support people who burned the city in 2010.
During that turbulent period, thousands of "red shirt" pro-Thaksin supporters descended on central Bangkok to demand early elections. In the ensuring chaos, scores of buildings were torched and a military crackdown left more than 90 people dead. Some of the red-shirt leaders are members of the Puea Thai government, which is supported mainly by rural, up-country voters.
With Puea Thai already commanding 265 out of 500 seats in Parliament, the Democrats are also warning voters against giving Puea Thai a blank cheque for its populist policies and alleged corruption.
This strategy could well work, says Kan Yuenyong, the executive director of think-tank Siam Intelligence Unit.
The fear of Puea Thai's total domination is "deeply embedded in the psyche" of Bangkok's middle class, he says.
But the argument may cut no ice with some residents who are starting to wonder if life will improve if the daily political rivalry is removed from their backyard.
During the major flood in 2011, for example, Sukhumbhand openly clashed with the Puea Thai administration, sending contradicting messages to residents.
As resident Apinya Thanyachoto, 47, a civil servant, told The Straits Times recently in Thai: "The corruption will just be a little bit, compared to the benefits it will bring to people."