City race takes place against an old backdrop
Bangkokians will soon elect a new governor, with little concern for what is really needed to make the capital more habitable and functional
Since the Bangkok gubernatorial election was introduced some three decades ago, the poll has always been highly politically charged. First, it was a modest Chamlong Srimuang up against the mighty Democrats, then a mighty Chamlong Srimuang squaring off against humble Bhichit Rattakul. Samak Sundaravej, apparently in the sunset of his political career, was "reborn" in 2000 with a sweeping and stunning victory in the capital. There has never been a dull moment.
This year, however, will arguably be the most exciting. Never before has the gubernatorial election been held against such a divided political backdrop. Although incumbent Sukhumbhand Paribatra and his predecessor Apirak Kosayodhin rose to the helm of City Hall amid national polarity, the confrontations then were nothing compared to now. The political bloodshed in 2010 left a gaping wound that hasn't yet healed, and it is amid the still-apparent consequences of that turmoil that the contenders in this year's Bangkok race find themselves in.
No Bangkok gubernatorial candidate has ever been judged professionally. It's been political affiliation, or lack thereof, that has determined who won or lost. On one hand, that was the charm of the city election. Nobody thought Chamlong could run a city of millions facing a traffic crisis and with soil deemed too soft for subway construction. He won anyway, depicting himself as a poor David fighting a Goliath. The late Samak probably boasted some gubernatorial qualifications, but his victory in the city was based largely on a sentimental campaign posting him as a political has-been seeking reincarnation.
Maybe Bhichit was an exception. He won on an unprecedented environmental platform. But again, his landslide triumph owed much to the fact he portrayed himself as an underdog. By that time the once down-to-earth Chamlong had somehow become enveloped in an air of political supremacy. The rest is history.
Sukhumbhand will seek re-election this time. Any Pheu Thai candidate will make it an extreme political fight. The events of 2010 will be dug up and thrown at everyone involved in an election that is supposed to be about air pollution, drugs on the street and how to deal with the fast-increasing number of cars. It won't matter who has the better ideas on infrastructure or flood prevention. One camp could field the most qualified engineer for the city job, but that candidate will not get one single vote from "the other side".
Bangkok voters always make their decisions based on national politics. If they want to snub the government, they will vote for an opposition candidate, regardless of qualifications. That has happened a few times, no matter how hard the government tried to point out how important it is to have political enemies and agencies work together.
Sukhumbhand can rest assured that voters opposed to "city burning" will generally support him, regardless of his performance over the past four years. His Pheu Thai challenger will enter the race safe in the knowledge that voters embittered by the Ratchaprasong "massacre" will never go for the Democrats. Whatever the result, politics will rule the day, and what Bangkok needs most will be second or third on the priority list. It will be another four years of old-fashioned national politics dictating the course of a metropolis that is plagued with modern complexities.
There has been talk about making the gubernatorial race one of independents. However, everyone knows that it is impossible to keep politics at bay. "Independence" would be in name only, would invite mockery and would only mask the influence of political parties under the surface. There used to be so-called "independent" candidates in the past, but their strong political affiliation was thinly veiled.
Everyone will go to the polls knowing this. Already political analysts have described the gubernatorial election as a key test of strength between the two rival political camps, in a city where one side seems to hold a slight edge. And the analysts are right.
There may be one or two "non-partisan" candidates to add excitement or colour, but virtually every voter already knows where to mark the ballot. And what they mark will not really be influenced by concern about floods, bad air or how the city should develop.