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Thai Middle Class Key to Bangkok Governor Vote - 2004-08-27


Bangkok voters decide Sunday who will govern the city of 10 million people for the next four years. While the candidates vary from a massage parlor boss to established politicians, the real fight lies between the ruling party of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the parliamentary opposition, the Democrat Party. The race that is seen as test of Mr. Thaksin's support in the crowded city.

In the back streets of Bangkok, Chuwit Kamolvisit, a massage parlor owner and hotelier, trolls for votes in his bid to be the next governor of the city.

Almost 40 percent of Bangkok's four million eligible voters remain undecided on which of the 21 candidates they will vote for in Sunday's election.

The city's streets are filled with campaign posters promising better traffic management and new pollution controls. The city's residents have long complained about its jammed streets, smoggy air and foul waterways.

Mr. Chuwit, a 43-year-old businessman, who made his fortune in the sex industry, is optimistic the middle and working class will support him and his push to fight corruption.

"The support comes from the ordinary people, the normal people from Bangkok," he said. "They are desperately seeking someone that [is] not a politician. Do you think I cannot do? I am positive that I can do. Why? Because I live in Bangkok, and I know everything about Bangkok."

But Mr. Chuwit faces a tough challenge. Thailand's national parliament is dominated by the Thai Rak Thai Party, led by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Although Thai Rak Thai is not directly fielding a candidate in the governor's election, it supports several contenders. The party aims to keep the leading opposition group, the Democrat Party, from claiming control of the country's biggest city and most populous area.

Among the candidates Thai Rak Thai backs is a former member of parliament, Paveena Hongsakul, who is known as a defender of women's and children's rights.

Another candidate with Thai Rak Thai support is former legislator Chalerm Yoobamrung. Mr. Chalerm may be most famous, however, for his sons, who are known for their playboy lifestyle and fights.

Unofficial surveys show the front runner is the Democrat Party's candidate, Apirak Kosayodhin, a former telecommunications company executive.

Mr. Apirak says he wants to separate politics from the responsibilities of managing the city.

"I would like to separate the political issue and also the concern of Bangkok people, that they like to have the new governor that could change their lives to be a better quality of life," he says. "But I would like to ensure that we weren't going to play politics."

Pichai Chuensuksawadi, editor of the Bangkok Post, says the city's middle class will decide the election. A big issue is voter concern about Thai Rak Thai's political dominance.

"The result of the governor's elections, if it is a Democrat victory, is an indication of a protest vote among the people of Bangkok, particularly the middle class," he explains. "They don't want the complete domination of Thai Rak Thai in Bangkok."

Mr. Pichai said the city's electorate also is looking to the national polls due in early 2005. There are widespread expectations that Mr. Thaksin will be swept back into national office based on support from voters in the provinces.

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