Aug 26, 2010|
This Sunday sees the completion of elections for the district and city councilors of Bangkok. If you are even registered to vote, chances are you won’t be casting your ballot—there was only a 35% turnout for the by-election on June 6 (see Who Voted So Far)—despite the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s (BMA) campaign and the thousands of election posters all over the city. Admit it, many of us have only one pressing issue regarding this election: “I can’t drink this weekend.”
Yes, it’s all a little complicated and, after all, you’ve already voted for a governor (Democrat Sukhumbhand Paribatra) last year. Why worry about who will be the puu yan ban (village chief) of your district? Well, Bangkok is far from perfect, and while you can’t get Sukhumband on the phone to tell what you’d like to see fixed, your city councilor can—and he or she has a duty to listen to you.
Up until the new military constitution of 2007, that aimed to cut abuse of power and corruption, being a city councilor was a potentially lucrative post. Each one received some 25 million baht to spend pretty much as he or she pleased in their district: add street lights, build a park, expand a road. Three million baht of that budget was even chalked down to personal expenses, with practically no oversight whatsoever.
“Some people did good things, but some people spent it on trips abroad, things like that,” says Man Charoenwal. The Democrat party calls him a new face, but Man ran (and lost by 49 votes) in the 2006 City Council elections for the Buengkum district. The Democratic party was quick to place him on the BMA’s secretariat covering Eastern Bangkok, so that Man could establish deep ties with the locals. But even he’s not sure the changed constitution has completely solved the problem. “Now that budgets are cut, I can’t say if it’s totally clean. I’m not in yet.”
Incumbent Kannayao city councilor Phonpoom Wipatbhumipradesh from the Pheua Thai party refused to discuss the issue but Democrat candidate Apimuk Xanthavanij, the incumbent councilor for Bang Ko Laem district, readily acknowledges corruption is a problem: “Things have improved, though. There are more anti-graft agencies and the bidding process is now more open, with e-auctions for projects over B2 million baht.”
This seems like a dramatic change: since the law orders that city councilors can no longer sign checks, they now need to ask for funding from the BMA, who may or may not indulge them. But the results are similar: councilors are still the go-to people when you need something fixed, built or solved.
“For general elections, people vote for a party. For local elections, people are concerned more about individuals. They vote for people they can go and see when they have a problem,” says Apimuk. “People were used to us serving them. When the budgets were cut, it became more difficult.”
Difficult but not impossible. “Look, the people in my district: 30% of them live in, well, nearly slums. They don’t even have the police department’s number. But they have my sticker, my picture, with my number in front of their house. If they have to go to the hospital, my team will drive them. We take care of almost everything. If they have a problem, I help,” says Man of Buengkum.
Shuttling grannies to the hospital, adding a street light here or a CCTV there—these hands-on politicians appear much better grounded in the realities of our daily lives than your average MP. Bangkok Post Duputy News Editor Ploenpote Attakhor begs to differ though:
“My concern is with the unhealthy patron-client relationship that [this creates]. Yes, [city councilors] are supposed to take a role in improving the quality of life of their constituents, but it’s a lot better to work on the big picture—a kind of a district development master plan with a clear set of actions—rather than pushing for piecemeal projects. Unfortunately I have never seen any councilors pay attention to this.”
We can only confirm this. Talk to city councilors about the bigger picture—attracting investment, Bangkok 2020—and be prepared to draw blanks. City councilors obviously consider competing for regional dominance a mission way beyond their job description. And it’s not entirely their fault. “Big infrastructure projects are piloted by the government. Bangkok doesn’t even have its own police force, like any other major city,” two times councilor Apimuk notes, pointing out that even the governor’s powers are limited.
Ploenpote also argues that hyper-local projects distract from the city council’s legislative role. “Look at the city dog registration and microchip project. How come the city council did not do anything to stop this project, which turned out to be a total waste? It’s my wish to see councilors work more actively involved in auditing the performance of the governor, his team and the administration.”
A local focus may not be the only thing standing in the way of City Councilors keeping the BMA in check. It’s pretty safe to expect sweeping democrat wins on Aug 29 (if the by-election and Bangkok’s political leanings since 2004 are any indication). And with democrats in the council watching a democrat governor, we can’t help but ask: will democrat city councilors truly monitor Sukhumband or simply rubber stamp his schemes?
“If you look at the records for the past two years, the members who asked the most questions to the governor are Democrats,” Apimuk responds. “We do not agree with everything. We might need him to change or adjust what he thinks according to our suggestions and advice.”
“When Apirak was governor, every member wanted the BRT to pass through their district,” says Man. “So that’s why some—including Democrats—voted against the project. Of course we have to consider the whole city, but we have to think of our people, too.”
In fact, the need to push projects favorable to one’s district is so strong, that Pheu Thai chimes in with its support of Sukhumbhand. “We look at what benefits the people,” incumbent city councilor in Kannayao district Phonpoom Wipatbhumipradesh says. “We neither veto or agree with projects systematically.”
“Around 80% of the projects reviewed were passed,” says new Pheu Thai candidate Supaporn Kongwutthipanya from Phasi Charoen district. “The last two speakers of the council were Pheu Thai so we work well with the Democrats. We only reject what can be made more efficient or beneficial to more people.” In the past four years, a censure debate was only opened once.
This could be the bright side to hyper-local politics: city councilors are so obsessed with pleasing their constituents, they also come across as a lot less concerned about party lines. “I can say that at the council level, [Pheu Thai and Democrats] are more friendly. Compared to the Parliament, where there’s a lot of argument. But in Bangkok, during Apirak’s term for example, he asked for the extension of Thaksin to Wongwian Yai and everyone voted favorably-from both parties,” says Apimuk.
Pheu Thai, traditionally weak in Bangkok, is using this entente cordiale as a key argument. The Phuea Thai’s Phonpoom says, “People don’t have to take sides in this local election. they have to understand the role of the city councilors is to develop their area and to monitor the administration. It’s actually better for the system if the council is much more diverse.”
There is one issue where Democrats claim to have the upper hand, though. With the disappearance of city council budgets, councilors are now glorified lobbyists. For anything to happen in their district, they need to beg for money from the governor, or from the government. Currently, both are run by Democrats.
“We’re definitely better than Pheua Thai. Being from the same party as the governor, you can ask and convince much more easily than the other side,” says Man.
Apimuk, of course, agrees: “Democrat party meetings take place weekly, as opposed to the bi-monthly city council meetings where everyone gets to sit down with the governor. Being from the same party, we’re closer to him.”
New face Pheua Thai candidate Supaporn Kongwutthipanya of Paseecharoen District argues that things don’t work that way: “I like Governor Sukhumband and we get along fine. He listens to councilors from all parties, so there’s no need to vote Democrat to have your district respected by him.”
After all, most of the election platforms on both sides reflect a lot of generic ideas (better traffic, more green space, higher security) we’ve already heard from the governor, but local politics sometimes supersede the Bangkok agenda. Apimuk’s constituents’ concerns are resolutely middle-class: better lighting on community roads, better drainage and even the need for more parks. Man, who oversees a working class district, speaks more of supporting the local population with better health care and public schooling. Phonpoom and Supaporn, although Pheau Thai candidates, share his concerns as they are running for office in districts on Bangkok’s outer ring, which contain a low-income demographic. They promise public sports facilities for youth to stay away from drugs and more nursing places to take care of children and old people while their family members are at work.
Where you live can also affect how interested you are in the election. “If you live in a condo, you take the BTS, you have security guards, you don’t need anything. That’s why voter turn out is very low in downtown area. In Silom, you get 7,000 votes, you win. I got 15,000 votes in my district and I lost,” points out Man.
“People aren’t interested in this election,” Phonpoom agrees. So does Apimuk: “People just don’t pay attention because they’re not going to choose the prime minister. With the local election, whatever the result, the governor is the same.”
And yet, your city councilor is the shortest line to Sukhumband—and to changing your neighborhood the way you see fit. Here at BK, we’ve collected hundreds of letters bemoaning pot-holed sidewalks, poor street lighting or some traffic issue. Keep them coming, but please make sure you CC your city councilors from now on. And maybe help them think big, too.
“I think people should have more social responsibility. We have a lot of projects where we ask people to get involved. But no one is interested,” says Apimuk.
So whatever the outcome of this weekend’s election and whoever is the winner in your district, let’s use the next four years to tell them what kind of city we want to live in.
14 districts held preliminary elections on Jun 6, 2010.
The Democrats won all 75 district councilor seats in 10 districts: Bang Kapi, Bueng Kum, Lat Phrao, Wang Thonglang, Bang Khen, Lak Si, Saphan Sung, Sai Mai, Klong Samwa and Chatuchak.
Pheu Thai won all 23 seats in three districts: Khan Na Yao, Lat Krabang and Don Muang districts.
In Min Buri, the seats were split with the Democrats winning four and Pheu Thai three.