Bangkok race’s biggest challenge

It normally begins with a “public forum” debate on pedestrians’ and ordinary citizens’ problems, but the city gubernatorial election usually ends up producing the outcome of a national political game. When about four million voters in the Thai capital go to the polling booths next month to elect their new governor, they are virtually heading into a trap that can make technical ability and expertise give way to a politics where dust, pavement, mass transport, and city planning seem secondary.

The trap has always been there, but it looks the most formidable now. The current race boasts an unprecedentedly-crammed running field, yet it also is taking place amid an unprecedented scale of the ideological divide. Already, the contest that is supposed to be about clean air, cheap but effective mass transit, and traffic safety is being dubbed a test of strength between warring political beliefs. Candidates will probably be judged more on which side of the national polarity they are on, than on their true capabilities to run an increasingly complex metropolis.

It’s a curse that is hard to revoke or get away from. For better or worse, Bangkok’s gubernatorial elections have been mostly a barometer of national politics. Chamlong Srimuang won in the 1980s because of the excitement of what was then an unorthodox political style, not expertise. Bhichit Rattakul won when Chamlong’s style was no longer new and was proving too divisive. Late Samak Sundaravej won because his campaign seemed like a swansong and triggered a groundswell of sympathy. Sukhumbhand Paribatra won his second term against all odds thanks to a spectacular, last-minute surge of anti-Thaksin feelings.

As we can see, overriding factors for victories have more to do with “hearts” rather than “heads”. This makes the Bangkok governor race an excellent case study about democracy. It asks a very intriguing and tough question. As the governor’s job is highly technical and requires special expertise, is it good or bad if someone with lesser abilities and experiences is elected by the majority?

There are “sidebar” questions as well. For example, should/can voters pick someone who the government will regard as an enemy or “a plant of the other side”? If the answer is No, what is the point of the election anyway? If the answer is Yes, who should be blamed if “coordination” problems occur, particularly at the time of a crisis like when Governor Sukhumbhand, a Democrat, had to serve while Yingluck Shinawatra was prime minister and the Pheu Thai Party was in power? Who should blame whom when big flooding hit Bangkok amid charges of poor preparations, delayed responses, and bad funding priorities?

Vote for an “independent” then, some may argue. This potential answer leads to more questions. Should Bangkok gubernatorial candidates be required to dissociate themselves from political parties? Is such a concept “fair” to this year’s candidates? Is it genuinely possible for a Bangkok gubernatorial runner to have no links whatsoever with political parties?

Simply put, what is the best form of city gubernatorial democracy, one that will give the capital the most able governor who can work effectively with any government? The good news is that voters this time are blessed with the most choices ever, 31, and age groups of the voting public appear to be of equal sizes. It’s a good environment for the “wisdom of the crowd”, seemingly at least.

Here is the bad news: Scanning the list of this year’s candidates and reading comments of the “cheerleaders”, one can see a Sukhumbhand-style win, or another ideological triumph. Already, a leading commentator on one side is suggesting that voters may have to cast aside their preferred candidates and embrace the ones likelier to win. On the other side, young voters are being asked to “snub” candidates “associated” with a system disliked by this half of the national divide.

Whoever wins, national politics will most likely come into play before and after. If Bangkok is lucky, the victory also installs a good governor, one with the technical ability to see a flood coming and abort it, not one who wades through floodwaters before TV cameras because that’s what politicians do. If lucks are not on the capital’s side, Bangkokians can be stuck with someone who may give them a sense of ideological pride but nothing more for a few years.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service