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Close race likely for Bangkok chief post

Sukhumbhand Paribatra is seeking re-election as governor of the capital city. (PHOTO: THE NATION)

Publication Date : 17-01-2013


The race for votes has begun in Bangkok after Thailand's ruling Puea Thai party put forward a fresh-faced civil servant in a bid to wrest the post of governor of the capital city from the opposition Democrats.

With polling set for March 3, former deputy national police chief Pongsapat Pongcharoen stepped up to the plate on Tuesday. He pledged close cooperation with the government in an attempt to sway voters disenchanted with the political bickering that has bogged down life in Bangkok.

Life-sized banners of Pongsapat quickly plastered across lampposts along major roads promised that he would "build Bangkok and work smoothly with the government".

Not to be outdone, his main rival Sukhumbhand Paribatra, who quit the city's governor post last week to seek re-election, called on residents to "Love Bangkok, build Bangkok together" on sky-blue banners as well as on social media.

Both men, and reportedly five independent candidates, are wooing votes from a city of eight million chafing from crowded pavements and worsening traffic jams that critics blame on years of haphazard planning and a recent scheme to fuel car sales with generous tax rebates.

The city is also hostage to constant rivalry between the Puea Thai-controlled central government and the Democrat-controlled metropolitan authority.

Just last week, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), a unit under the Ministry of Justice, indicted Sukhumbhand as well as eight others in the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority for wrongfully granting skytrain operator Bangkok Mass Transit System a 13-year extension to its current concession. According to the DSI, this deal needed the Ministry of Interior's approval.

Pongsapat is a political greenhorn but a familiar face in Bangkok for his role as the deputy national police chief and secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board. He quit both posts this week to contest the election.

Analysts expect the race to be dominated by the two parties, and the finish to be close. Still, a recent poll of more than 3,000 eligible voters found about 40 per cent of them to be undecided. Voting is mandatory and voters have to be at least 18 years old.

Political science professor Charas Suwanmala from Chulalongkorn University expects as much as 60 per cent of the electorate to be made up of swing voters. "The Democrats have a better chance but that's not without exception," he said.

Although Bangkok's voters lean towards Democrats, they have been known to snub candidates from established parties. Sukhumbhand's predecessor, Apirak Kosayothin, is also a Democrat but Bangkok's voters put their faith in independent candidates in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Sukhumbhand, who is pledging to add more green spaces to the capital, help residents with special needs, and improve public transportation, is not taking any chances.

On Monday, he kicked off his campaign by greeting residents in Bangkok's Chinatown, the vibrant Yaowarat district. He followed that on Tuesday by turning up at - what else - a skytrain route which was recently extended under his watch.


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