We’re in a cab on the way to meet Chuvit Kamolvisit and his entourage somewhere in Din Daeng. They’re launching a new website (www.chuvitonline.com) to help get the former massage parlor kingpin’s anti-corruption message across to voters. We’re simply relieved to be able to follow him. A slip down a hill in Nakhon Si Thammarat a few days before left him hospitalized with a bad back and put a brake on his energetic campaigning.
On the drive across town we tell our cab driver who we’re going to see and ask him what he thinks about the larger-than-life character. “Chuvit stands for repentance,” muses Palangkul Rahotarn. “Considering his past, he’s now become a better person.” Would he vote for him though? “Possibly. I like him. He’s straightforward.”
Repentance and straightforwardness are traits Chuvit has played off ever since he blew the whistle on corrupt police back in 2003 and entered the media spotlight. He’s still a big draw, as we realize when we spot the ranks of cameras outside the Internet cafe where the press con is taking place. We call Thepthat Boonpattananon, or Aum, one of Chuvit’s loyal army of assistants, to find out where to go. The candidate is doing a quick walk about up the street and is surrounded by a good-natured mob of supporters, journalists and students keen to get their photo taken with him.
Chuvit seems in buoyant spirits with little sign of the injury, taking time to stop and chat to store owners before dashing to pose for photos, always happy to pull the trademark grimace that has made his posters so popular. Eventually he’s steered over to the cafe and the waiting reporters. A quick demonstration of how the site works and a few sound bites and the press con is over. While most of the reporters head to lunch, Chuvit does an interview with a TV reporter from China News wanting his thoughts on the election. He’s also been contacted by NHK and has an interview with Agence France Press on the next day at 2pm. Aum, who is responsible for getting the press to follow him shows us a thick notebook that’s filled with scribbled meetings, numbers and contacts. He admits his candidate’s reputation helps. “It’s easy to get people to follow him because of who he is.”
While Chuvit continues his interview we are busy trying to persuade Khun Ke, another assistant, to give us a few minutes of his time. She’s pretty reluctant: “With his injuries and all, maybe we can schedule another time?” After promises that we won’t keep him long and that we’re happy to do it over lunch, she finally relents, ushering us to the nearest khao man gai restaurant.
After helping clear a table we finally find ourselves sitting down for some uninterrupted time with the man himself. He’s remarkably relaxed in these relatively lowly settings and, perhaps more surprisingly, equally at ease switching between Thai and English, a legacy of his time studying in the US. For the most part, the conversation is focused on the election. Why is he running for office again after two failed attempts at becoming Bangkok Governor and a brief stint as an MP (he was thrown out of parliament over a technicality relating to his membership in the Chart Thai Party)?
“Because I watch TV and read the newspapers and I laugh. I think I’m living in a comedy. Thai politicians act like Thai people are very stupid. They don’t do things for the Thai people. They just monopolize everything and take all the money for themselves.” His aims, he says, are rather different. He wants to make a difference, or, as he puts it, he wants “to be a pain in the ass,” for the existing order. Of course his distrust of existing politicians is a line we’ve heard before, but as the head of a party with just 11 nominated candidates, does he really think he can bring about any major changes? “I don’t want to be on the executive. I want to be the opposition. I want to be the public eye in parliament, and use the media to tell people what’s really going on.”
As for his rather unusual campaign posters, he says, “I deliberately take this negative approach, this angry face in my posters. I am not an actor, an artist or even a politician. I want to show society that I am different.”
He also thinks it’s an essential tactic for a party like his, one operating on a very small budget. “I can’t reach millions of people by campaigning on the streets for 45 days but I can tell millions of people about society’s problems with a website, and through my posters,” he continues.
When asked about his opinion on the outcome of the elections he demonstrates his trademark honesty: “Thais aren’t very educated about politics, so it’s easy to attract them to vote for you. Every politician, every party is promising populist policies, but the government will end up bankrupt soon. I think Pheu Thai will get in because they have the political machine, they have the majority. But they’ll have to compromise because of Thai society. There are so many groups that have power outside of government.”
“If you don’t compromise in politics, then you get a war. Last year no one would compromise. But now, I think there will be a compromise.”
It’s clear from the anxious expressions on the assistants’ faces that we’re talking for too long and they clearly want to get him back to the office. But as he finishes his soup we do have chance to ask him why he bothers. If he believes the politicians are all looking after each other, why spend days pounding the streets and spending millions of baht just for an outside chance of getting into government?
“Sometimes I don’t know,” is his frank response. “This is the fourth time I’ve run a campaign and if I don’t get in, well I’ve wasted another B100 million.”
“Maybe I should just buy a yacht, a Rolls Royce or go and blow the money on a trip to Europe. After all, I can’t change the whole world. I’m no superman,” he admits. It’s then, just as the assistants swoop in to clear away the bowls that we perhaps get a glimpse of the real reason he’s running.
“I just want people to remember me,” he says before standing and heading off for some final photos with a crowd of young students who’ve been waiting patiently.
A silver van with a big number five on the side pulls up and Chuvit and Ke jump in. We decide to take a look at the campaign HQ, set in a beautiful old Thai house at the back of Chuvit Gardens. The small group of friends and family that make up his team are sitting out on the veranda having a smoke and chatting, while Khun Ke and Aum hit the phones and Chuvit takes it easy inside. A white board in the corner shows the plan of action for every one of the campaign’s 45 days while photo boards show where Chuvit’s already been. According to the schedule, he supposed to hit a market later, but his bad back is clearly catching up with him, and the outing is cancelled, ending our day on the campaign trail.
It’s all been a little manic, and far too brief, but at least we got to spend some time with him. He’s clearly very clever and very different from the slightly jokey persona he presents to the world and, we have to admit, we can’t help liking him. He’ll need over 250,000 votes to get a place in parliament but, whether he achieves it or not, we do think he’ll succeed in his real aim: people certainly won’t forget Chuvit Kamolvisit. Nick Measures with Natthanun Prasongchaikul