SUNDAY, February 25, 2024

Does Thailand's capital need an elected governor?

Does Thailand's capital need an elected governor?

By the time you read this article, the results of Bangkok’s gubernatorial and council elections should have been declared. Once the Election Commission is convinced no irregularity or fraud took place, it would announce the winner.

That is why we call the winner ‘governor elect’, because he or she has not started work yet.

As expected, the battle for this important post has been fierce and crucial for all parties involved. The ruling Palang Pracharath Party aims to win the hearts and minds of Bangkokians in order to gain more seats in Bangkok at the coming general election. However, Bangkok’s demography is very diverse, and people can change their minds abruptly. This makes it difficult for the contenders to ensure successful campaigns, no matter what the polls might suggest about their chances of winning. 

I am not going to discredit the pollsters from various institutions. Nevertheless, there has been criticism for a long time that some pollsters don’t really conduct their surveys scientifically, and that they are instructed and controlled by those who use their services. Even worse, some pollsters come up with fake polls to flatter those in power or the wannabes, obviously in exchange for some rewards.

According to Article 49 of the Bangkok Metropolitan Act, the governor has several duties and responsibilities, such as supervising work routines, being head of the Bangkok government body, keeping Bangkok safe and clean. Most importantly, the governor needs to carefully spend nearly a trillion baht budget in the interests of the citizens. So, members of Bangkok councils, chosen on the same day as the governor, also need to perform their duties by checking and balancing power. These city council members have to voice their concerns if need be and work on behalf of the people of their constituencies as well as Bangkok as a whole.

In reality, in many situations the members of the Bangkok council and the governor come from different factions, and this leads to turbulence, much like the fierce fighting among MPs from all sides in Parliament. The members of the last Bangkok Metropolitan Council (BMC) were picked by the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order, which came to power in 2014, to fulfil the strategic purpose of pressing full reforms. This might have caused some stagnation for several former BMC members. However, when the election bell rang, many will manage to retain their posts.

This possibly reflects the continuity of their close and long-term relationship with voters in the constituencies and voter loyalty to each individual candidate. This is another reason why many political parties, new or the old, work very enthusiastically to win some seats in order to lay their political base in the hope of a larger national role, such as member of Parliament.

Like it or hate it, you have to live with the elected governor for the four-year term, unless the winner is found to be unsuitable for the position under law. There are many challenging tasks for the governor-elect to prove himself or herself as well as be tested by Bangkokians. The heavy rains in the last few days before the election, which led to flash flooding in many areas including major streets, was a wake-up call for all candidates about the challenges ahead. They have to deal with these kinds of sudden floods throughout the tenure. 

The majority of Bangkokians today seem to have zero tolerance for discomfort. It is totally different from the time when I was young and was staying with my grandma. We lived in our home amid heavy floods for nearly six months without making any complaint. Not because we did not want to complain, but we found hardly any authorities caring enough to take responsibility for the situation. Most governors at the time were nominated and appointed by the powers that be.

As an ordinary citizen, there was nothing we could do but wait until the water subsided. Things have now changed a lot due to more opportunities for the present generation.

By all means, it is not easy to serve as governor. One of the objectives of holding the gubernatorial election is to keep the administration free from bureaucracy and red tape. As many might realise, the Minister of Interior still has power over the governor in many circumstances. The minister can overrule the decision of the governor or even depose the governor if he considers the governor “not fit to perform the duties”.

As far as the politics is concerned, the Bangkok governor is highly unlikely to remain neutral. As we have already seen, the system is not really geared to let the governor pursue his or her agenda freely, and they have to compromise with the BMC members if they are from different factions.

It would be advisable for the governor to be fully responsible for supervision of work routines in the 50 districts of Bangkok, and oversee critical issues such as terrorist attacks, public safety and public welfare benefits of Bangkokians. We can go even further by changing the rules, such as scrapping the gubernatorial election and adopting a system of recruiting or selecting a highly qualified person, like the city of Pataya does.  By doing this, we could have someone work for us all rather than setting up very high expectations and ending up with mostly average people who often become the so-called “jack of all trades, not the master of one!”

Amorn Wanichwiwatana
Special to The Nation

(Amorn Wanichwiwatana, D.Phil. (Oxon), is a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University)