BANGKOK – In a city with all the problems of Bangkok—from floods to creaky infrastructure—politicians prefer to grab voters with sweeping generalities rather than detailed promises. With an election for Bangkok’s governor on March 3rd, Pongsapat Pongcharoen of the ruling Pheu Thai party says he will bring back “happiness and smiles”. Other candidates promise to turn Bangkok into the Hollywood of the region, or a “24-hour city”.
Voters would settle for less flooding, fewer cars and greater safety. Yet such demands are a difficult target for even the most diligent governor (equivalent to a mayor). The job comes with little authority or money: the annual budget for a city of 10m is a mere $2 billion. Only one-sixth of that is set aside for capital investment. The rest just about covers running costs.
The governor has no power over the city’s police or public bus services. For all the hoopla of the election campaign, the central government keeps the governor on a short leash. The Thai state is highly centralised. Bangkok’s citizens know that they are lucky to have elections at all. The interior ministry appoints the governor of all of Thailand’s 76 provinces, with which the capital region is on a par.
The incumbent in Bangkok, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, wants to change the power relationship. At the heart of his re-election campaign is an argument for further decentralisation of authority from central government to Bangkok, and, he hopes, to other big cities as well. He is a member of the main national opposition, the Democrat Party (DP), and as such has a strong interest in stripping power from the Pheu Thai-led central government. But Mr Sukhumbhand insists that he gets on perfectly well with the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra; his concern, rather, is to address the “structural problem” of how Bangkok and other cities are run.
Bangkok’s budget is tiny not only in absolute terms, but also relative to the tax revenues the city contributes to the national coffers. Until more of its own wealth can be spent fixing its roads, sewers and the like, the problems will continue. National politicians rarely care enough, especially if it means doling out money to a political opponent.
Bangkok is DP territory (Pheu Thai has never won the governorship), and Mr Sukhumbhand, a patrician former academic, is the favourite to win again. Campaigning on the back of a pickup through the streets of Din Daeng, a poor neighbourhood, he stoops to collect garlands from his well-organised supporters; more raucous party workers supply the megaphone populism.
Some polls show Mr Pongsapat closing on Mr Sukhumbhand. The result is likely to be close. If Mr Sukhumbhand loses, it would be calamitous for the DP and might even endanger the position of the party’s leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who lost the last general election by a big margin but hung on as party leader. It would also be a setback to the cause of decentralisation, which a country with an overstrong central government desperately needs. Many argue, for example, that a degree of political devolution would help to defuse the bloody Muslim insurgency in the four southernmost provinces of the country. On February 12th the army killed 16 heavily armed militants in an ambush there. It is a harsh reminder of how bad the situation remains—and of how decentralisation matters not only to Bangkok. – The Economist