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Divided Democrats paying the price in city race

If last week's polls are reliable, the Democrats have approximately a month to rescue their city gubernatorial campaign that seemed doomed even before it really got started. That Sukhumbhand Paribatra is trailing Pheu Thai's Pongsapat Pongcharoen should not have come as a surprise; what's boggling minds is why the opposition camp put most, if not all, its eggs in the Sukhumbhand basket in the first place.

Bangkok gubernatorial elections can't be decided by preliminary popularity polls, as we have learned. That's why Pheu Thai is greeting humbly the positive results of the survey. There must also be people in the ruling party who dread the fact that Pongsapat has taken an early lead. City voters are notoriously fickle, and in the past, stories of initial underdogs being hauled to victory by a groundswell of sympathy were common.

The difference this time is the question of how a man seeking his second consecutive term as governor can play the sympathy card after four years of, well, nothing in particular. Landslide winners of gubernatorial elections were mostly newcomers presenting themselves as romantic choices. Chamlong Srimuang's impressive wins came when he was up against the status quo; and when he was soundly beaten, he was given a taste of his own medicine by Bhichit Rattakul. Even Samak Sundaravej won as a political has-been, or a sad veteran seeking redemption.

Sukhumbhand's only weapon was the one unleashed by his Democrat predecessor. In his first gubernatorial triumph, Apirak Kosayodhin was helped a lot by fear of one-party domination. Yet Apirak had other attractions. He was young, handsome, looked sophisticated and had a good management background.

Sukhumbhand didn't look too bad in his first campaign, when he was a candidate with a impressive pedigree who had a reasonable political background and came from the same party as Apirak. A heroic attempt to solve a hostage situation a few years earlier also didn't go unnoticed. But after four years, in the eyes of many he has come across as aloof, always sulking when he shouldn't, colourless at best and lacklustre at worst.

Before Sukhumbhand was nominated by the party for a second term, some Democrats reportedly squirmed at the thought of him as a sitting duck in a fierce political campaign. Deputy party leader Korn Chatikavanij was touted as a better choice, but the party’s executive committee controversially decided to back Sukhumbhand. The incumbent governor received the backing of party big-shot Suthep Thaugsuban, who was allegedly motivated by his conflict with new Democrat secretary-general Chalermchai Sri-on, who is pro-Korn.

Now, the Democrats are paying the price for their disunity. They don't need popularity surveys to evaluate Sukhumbhand's chances; all they needed to know was there in the first public reaction to the announcement of his nomination. Even staunch party supporters were flabbergasted. This is not to say that Korn, who was beaten by Sukhumbhand 6-9 in the party executive committee's nomination vote, would stroll to victory, but the younger Democrat's selection would at least have sent a signal that the party did care.

Often praised for their enthusiasm for social media, the Democrats have somehow overlooked public feeling toward Sukhumbhand. If they have noticed widespread disappointment with his nomination, they are way beyond the no-return post, and will now have to put up a defiant face and pin their hopes on Bangkok's always-changing heart.

But first, the party has to help itself by forgetting the internal conflicts and pulling together. They have not done enough. One sign of that is the general misconception about the age gap between Sukhumbhand and Pongsapat. Pheu Thai has somehow managed to project Pongsapat as being among a new generation of leaders, although at 57 he is just three years younger than Sukhumbhand.

What Pheu Thai has to do now is keep Thaksin Shinawatra out of it. This is not a general election where ideological bitterness will play to their advantage. Most of all, this is Bangkok, where Pheu Thai has played ideological games and lost. Pongsapat's campaign posters have rightly talked about projects and government-city hall cooperation. The ruling party is even suspected to have a hand in the Department of Special Investigation's decision to delay legal action against Sukhumbhand regarding a controversial Skytrain contract. Pheu Thai will wait for the Democrats to fire the first ideological shots and decide how to respond.

To the Democrats, desperate measures may eventually be unavoidable. But they must pull it off using the right balance. Overplaying this card can easily backfire, while underplaying it won't be effective. And worse still, once the card is played, things can easily get out of their control.

Bangkok gubernatorial elections were often a perfect arena for candidates with nothing to lose. With the stakes high for both key competitors this time, the contest may be decided by who is better at papering over the cracks. Having been an incumbent with a so-so record to say the least, Sukhumbhand's campaign is twice as hard as his rival's. Which means March 3 can't come soon enough for one side, while for the other camp, time will fly.


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