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Bangkok election isn't about traffic, pollution

Voters may end up basing their choices more on national politics than on candidates' vision

Once again, the Bangkok gubernatorial election is being determined by national politics, and the outcome will have great repercussions not only on the lives of Bangkokians but also on how the future battle for state power transpires. Sadly, this is a situation that cannot be avoided.

Ever since Bangkok voters elected their first governor in the mid-1980s, this democratic exercise has been tied to what goes on at the national level in Thai politics. And it is even more so this time around, with power struggles on the national level being the fiercest in modern history.

The "Big Four" candidates make a fascinating line-up. Democrat candidate MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra leads the pack with mountainous pressure on his shoulders. His party needs to win this one, not just because former governor Apirak Kosayodhin, who was forced to resign over the fire-truck scandal, is one of their own but because the shaky "legitimacy" of the Abhisit Vejjajiva government is at stake. Any kind of loss will be a big blow, but if it ends up being a defeat to arch rival Pheu Thai candidate Yuranan Pamornmontri it will be devastating.

Yuranan has nothing to lose, and a win will definitely revitalise the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai and go a long way to supporting its claims that the Democrats "hijacked" the right to form a government after the People Power Party was disbanded. If the Democrats fail to win in the heart of the "elite" power base, more questions about their legitimacy will be asked here and abroad.

So one can say that Yuranan's battle with Sukhumbhand has become a proxy war between red and yellow, even though Sukhumbhand is by no means the automatic choice of sympathisers and supporters of the anti-Thaksin People's Alliance for Democracy.

Yuranan's problem is the revived political ambitions of versatile ML Nattakorn Devakula. The young man, who has been a TV host, news commentator and movie star, is threatening to steal a large chunk of non-Democrat votes from the Pheu Thai candidate. In fact, "Khun Pluem" is running ahead of Yuranan in certain popularity polls.

Sukhumbhand faces a similar problem. Lurking in the sidelines for anti-Thaksin votes is Kaewsan Atibodhi, an enigmatic anti-Thaksin figure who is resented by the PAD. Kaewsan ranked fourth in the most recent popularity polls but has been very impressive in televised showdowns with his blunt, no-nonsense style.

It's too bad that this election will not be judged on a candidate's knowledge of building-control laws or how green they want the city to look.

Ironically, this time the Democrats are sending out a message that they once deplored: if you elect a governor who is a member of the ruling party, the administration will be effective and smooth. Just recently Democrat candidates were campaigning on a checks-and-balances theme, which, of course, has been taken up by the Pheu Thai camp this time.

It seems like a long time since the Bangkok race was dictated and decided by the candidate's visions for the city. During a 1990s campaign, Bhichit Rattakul grew from a distant underdog to an overwhelming favourite, winning the election by a landslide as he rode on the crest of environmental concern. He defeated two-time governor Chamlong Srimuang, who ironically had won twice on the groundswell of public sympathy.

Other than that election, it was always a showdown against the backdrop of national politics. Chamlong's two victories were helped by what was going on on the national scene. Samak Sundaravej won by presenting himself as a lone warrior who could break the stranglehold of the Thai Rak Thai Party in the city.

Democrat Apirak thrived on similar fears that Thaksin Shinawatra's grip on Bangkok was becoming dangerously monopolised.

Through all this, traffic problems, pollution and public safety could only get as far as the sidelines of the campaign. Candidates have been asked about it in televised face-offs or newspaper interviews, but at the end of the day voters going to the ballot boxes will be more occupied with whether they should support or snub the ruling party.

One of these days the idea that the Bangkok race should feature only independent candidates will be mooted and shot down. Even if such a restriction is imposed, national politics will undoubtedly find a way to get around it: nominees will be fielded, and then we will all get back to square one.

Meanwhile we voters are left playing the game that they want us to play. Or is it the other way around? Maybe it's us, the voters, who have started politicising the Bangkok elections after all.

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