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Gridlock in Bangkok

Bangkok and Jakarta are big, brash and ugly. They are chronically over-crowded and suffer from flooding, pollution and horrendous traffic jams.

By any reckoning, someone who campaigns for the job of trying to govern them must be certifiably mad.

Yet a crowded field invariably competes for the governorship of both cities.

Jakarta’s contest finally ended last month when a rank outsider, Joko Widodo, was elected boss of Indonesia’s sprawling capital.

Though starting as a dark horse, Jokowi, as he is universally known, is now being hailed as “Indonesia’s most promising politician”.

Vowing to bring real change and tagged as “lean and coolly self-possessed”, Jokowi has even been compared to United States President Barack Obama.

If only the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration could find someone like him.

But neither the ruling Puea Thai Party nor the opposition Democrats have yet managed to agree on a candidate for the city’s fast-approaching January election.

The incumbent is a Democrat, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, and it might be thought the party would endorse him for a second term since he wants to run again.

But it has not done so, and unless it does, Sukhumbhand has hinted he may run as an independent, which would split the Democrat vote and let Puea Thai win.

Naturally, this has further alienated Sukhumbhand, and he is on especially testy terms with party leader and former PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, despite both hailing from two of Bangkok’s most elite and ultra-rich families.

Their tiff stems in part from the way Sukhumbhand was railroaded into running for the governorship in late 2008, just weeks before the military shepherded Abhisit’s Democrats into power.

If Sukhumbhand had not been landed with the BMA, he would have become foreign minister, the post he has always coveted.

Instead, Yellow Shirt leader Kasit Piromya was rewarded with the job, and his brash manner upset Thailand’s neighbours and practically took the nation to war with Cambodia.

Poor Sukhumbhand had to watch this travesty from the sidelines, and instead of attending elegant diplomatic functions, he was obliged to get down and dirty and deal with Bangkok’s daily tribulations.

But fate is fickle, and while he slowly grew into the governor’s job, Abhisit’s premiership went steadily downhill and lasted less than three years before being walloped at the polls by Puea Thai.

Now, just as the looming BMA election offers the prospect of a rare resurrection for the beleaguered Democrats, Abhisit’s own travails have taken a dive for the worse.

Last week, a committee appointed by the defence minister found that the former PM had forged documents to avoid military conscription.

He has been stripped of the rank he was given when teaching at an army academy and ordered to repay his salary.

Those punishments, of course, mean nothing compared to the awful impression given by the official judgement that “clean” pretty-boy Abhisit was, in fact, a liar and a cheat.

In theory, Sukhumbhand could exploit this situation and push forward his bid to be the party’s candidate for reelection as Bangkok governor.

Unfortunately, he also became embroiled in a comparable debacle last week when FIFA, the world’s governing body for football, vetoed use of a new stadium built for the 2012 Futsal World Cup in Bangkok.

Sukhumbhand’s BMA was in charge of construction and belatedly handed over a stadium which did not meet FIFA’s safety standards and so the games have been forced to move to other locations.

Lambasting this $40 million scandal, the Bangkok Post wrote: “Shame may be too soft a word to describe the utter incompetency of all the organisations involved in the hosting of the event, particularly the BMA.”

So now Sukhumbhand, tagged as utterly incompetent, and Abhisit, branded as a cheat, must still find a way to agree on who will run for governor in two months’ time.

Regrettably, they are unlikely to find any Thai equivalent of Jokowi to rescue the tempestuous metropolis.

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