Bangkok election could herald new chapter in turbulent Thai politics

BANGKOK Fri Mar 1, 2013 2:57am EST

A candidate from the Pheu Thai Party, Pongsapat Pongcharoen, walks past his portrait after registering as a candidate for Bangkok governor at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration January 21, 2013. . REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

A candidate from the Pheu Thai Party, Pongsapat Pongcharoen, walks past his portrait after registering as a candidate for Bangkok governor at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration January 21, 2013. .

Credit: Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

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BANGKOK (Reuters) - For years, Thailand's turbulent and sometimes violent politics have had a familiar narrative: the poor in the country's rural northern and eastern regions at polarizing odds with the royalist establishment in the bright lights of Bangkok.

That looks set to change in an election on Sunday which for the first time in nearly a decade could drive the middle-class establishment party, the Democrats, out of power in Bangkok and usher in a party favored by the working poor.

Such an upset could accelerate urban infrastructure by aligning the Bangkok and national governments under the same political party, making it more likely the cash-strapped city's projects can tap Thailand's federal largesse at a time when the economy, Southeast Asia's second biggest, has begun to boom.

It would also carry enormous symbolic resonance in a city paralyzed by protests in 2010 by the red-shirted, rural and urban poor supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who coalesced around a message of injustice in a country with one of Asia's widest rich-poor disparities.

After weeks of campaigning on hot-button issues such as tidying up Bangkok's chronically congested streets, charismatic former police-general Pongsapat Pongcharoen of Thaksin's ruling Puea Thai Party appears poised to become governor, according to recent opinion polls.

"Voters are very aware of the limitations of the governor job. They know we can't solve congestion without cooperation from central government," Pongsapat told Reuters at a campaign stop in Phra Khanong, a middle-class suburb where he basked in a rock-star reception.

As he waded through a crowd, supporters threw roses and snapped pictures with him. Some hung garlands around his neck.

"We want change," said Ratchada Suwankiri, 57, an office worker. "He's a new face with the prime minister on his side that can bring about that change."

The Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, have swept the last three elections in Bangkok, winning more than 45 percent of the 2009 vote. Puea Thai and its former incarnation, the Thai Rak Thai, have never won a Bangkok election.

A TRIUMPH FOR THAKSIN

If Puea Thai wins on Sunday, it would be yet another triumph for Thaksin, the graft-convicted telecoms tycoon who remains a political force from his self-exiled home in Dubai. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is prime minister.

Her landslide election win in 2011 has brought relative political stability and sharpened the behind-the-scenes influence of Thaksin.

Some believe a win by her party in Bangkok will cement that, strengthening her hand in governing the country of 60 million people and making it harder for her rivals in the military and royalist establishment to oust her, as they did her brother in a 2006 coup.

Pongsapat, a former deputy national police chief and secretary-general of the National Narcotics Control Board, has generated much of the same populist fervor that helped Yingluck and Thaksin win national elections.

He has promised free public transport, a crackdown on illegal drugs and the brisk development of southern Bangkok into a commercial hub. He has campaigned on a slogan of "seamless coordination" between the city and central government.

Democrat Party candidate and incumbent governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a member of the royal family and a former deputy foreign minister, has campaigned on middle- and upper-class aspirations: more parks, art centers, libraries and wi-fi hotspots. His slogan is "Love Bangkok, make Bangkok a metropolis for all."

The election is the first big test for his party in Bangkok since the 2010 crackdown by then-Democrat Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on the red-shirted protesters in which more than 90 people, most of them civilians, were killed. Many felt the government response was too strong. Abhisit faces murder charges for ordering the crackdown.

Polls show Puea Thai leading by up to a 16.7 percent margin.

"BIG MONEY"

Whoever wins inherits what some view as a poisoned chalice.

Home to more than 9 million people, Bangkok is a mishmash of dizzying skyscrapers and colossal shopping malls jammed up against residential apartment buildings and homes. Zoning laws are either poorly enforced or non-existent.

Crowded streets are blighted by unregulated sidewalk vendors, swarming motorbikes and tangles of overhead electricity lines which Pongsapat has vowed to bury underground. Corruption is rife -- from minor bribes to dubious urban procurement deals.

Traffic is a motorist's nightmare. Bangkok's 7.5 million registered cars overwhelm roads designed for 1.4 million, according to a report by the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Chulalongkorn University. About 1.3 million new cars are expected to hit Thailand's roads this year.

Fixing that is almost impossible on the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration's shoestring annual budget of 58 billion baht ($2 billion), say economists. That's less than half of the budget for the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, a similarly sized city. New York City, slightly smaller at 8.2 million people, had a $66 billion budget in 2012.

"The reality is city hall has very little say. The decision makers are the government along with the private sector," said Kampon Adireksombat, senior economist at TISCO Securities in Bangkok.

"If the city governor and the government are from the same political party, the government is more likely to back the projects suggested by the city."

Voters are taking notice. "I used to vote for the Democrats but I'm switching to Puea Thai. The government will throw big money at city hall, it's the only way problems get solved around here," said Boonchan Saengchai, 33, a tea shop owner.

(Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)

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