New Bangkok governor carries huge burden of expectations and promises
Pursuing an ambitious agenda, Chadchart Sittipunt, 56, is all set to become Bangkok’s first elected governor since the 2014 coup, after receiving a record-high mandate in the May 22 election.
The independent candidate on Tuesday (May 31) got the long-awaited nod from the Election Commission to take the reins of the Thai capital.
The new governor secured 1.38 million votes, reflecting his popularity across the political spectrum, but he carries the burden of enormous public expectations as reflected in the massive mandate.
The landslide victory also points to the high confidence voters have in his professional competence to manage Bangkok’s economy.
Chadchart was a transport minister in the Pheu Thai Party administration of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra before then-Army chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha toppled the government in a coup in May 2014.
Probably his background in overseeing a Cabinet portfolio could have worked to his advantage, as voters may have posed greater faith in his ability to run the city administration compared to a relative greenhorn.
During the election campaign, Chadchart appealed to the voters with an ambitious agenda to transform Bangkok. He proposed 214 policies covering nine areas: public safety, arts and creativity, environment, economics, transport, health, infrastructure and zoning, education, and management.
Chadchart has pledged to initiate 30 policies focused on the grassroots economy and disadvantaged groups.
“I like the fact that his economic policies are elaborated at the micro-level, and they are designed to address the needs of targeted groups. They are clear-cut,” says Vimut Vanitcharoenthum, an economics lecturer at Chulalongkorn Business School.
Tackling transport woes
Commuters, especially low-income groups, spend a large proportion of their income on commuting due to an inefficient public transport system that is responsible for traffic jams and high costs.
Many Bangkokians have to take several means of transportation for their daily commuting — motor-bike taxi, van, bus, skytrain or underground rail, and even boat — to reach their workplace.
To address this complex issue, Chadchart has promised to increase bus services in the main and minor lines at single and cheap fares.
He explained that so far Bangkok has focused on main routes in both mass transit railway and bus, while the feeder system is limited, in the process imposing a high cost on the people to connect to the main system.
Athiphat Muthitacharoen, the economics lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s economics faculty, backs Chadchart’s ambitious project.
“I think most voters want to see improvement in Bangkok’s public transport system, to facilitate more convenient daily travel,” said Athiphat.
Street food vendors
Bangkok has been famous for its street food, but many of these small businesses have been severely affected by the COVID-19 crisis over the past two years due to a sharp decline in tourism and lockdown restrictions to contain the pandemic.
Chadchart has promised career stability for hawkers. He views hawker stalls as an important part of the city because they connect with the grassroots economy and function as a source of inexpensive food, which reduces the cost of living for urban people.
He has promised to help them access financing by working with state-run banks and private financial institutions to secure them loans at a low-interest rate.
Next, he intends to coordinate with the private and public sectors in the area to provide affordable rental spaces for vendors who need permanent commercial space.
Among his plans is to support them with modern business management, by working with technology volunteers in communities to assist with stall operations, such as inventory and income-expense management by using technology.
Giving street vendors a say
Street vendors have been a part of Bangkok’s unique charm, especially for foreign tourists, and it is a source of income for many families and small businesses. However, sometimes street vendors are blamed for traffic woes as they occupy footpaths in crowded areas, aggravating the congestion.
Chadchart has promised to give street vendors a voice. He noted that even though there is an increasing attempt to engage people by including people’s representatives in the District Street Vendor Organization Committee, most of the current committee members are still civil servants. As a result, the committee’s actions may not be the answer to the people’s needs.
He believes that organizing street vendors without the participation of local people may result in street vendor areas being incongruous with local identity and culture.
Chadchart has said he would consider including more vendor representatives and local people in the District Street Vendor Organization Committee so that each area has the freedom to determine the characteristics of street vendor stalls and the number of stalls so as to maintain the area’s cleanliness and order.
He will have to listen to local people’s opinions by adapting online technology so that public space administration aligns with local people’s needs.
He plans to improve transparency by publicizing information about street vendor areas, characteristics of the street vendors’ areas, and the number and types of vendors.
He intends to seek cooperation from the private sector to support improvements in street vendors’ stalls, such as the colors of the stalls and umbrellas.
Access to technology
Chadchart dreams of creating a technology volunteer project, a kind of technology assistant for Bangkokians. He believes that digital literacy is essential for individuals to access benefits offered by the government, such as registration for the co-payment subsidy scheme, and for business operators, such as expanding distribution channels to online platforms.
Bangkok, in particular, is becoming an aging society with more than 1.1 million people of the capital’s population aged over 60. The elderly and general public may miss important opportunities if they do not have access to technology.
He aims to improve the living standards of small players or disadvantaged groups. Thailand is among the countries with the most serious economic inequality in the world.
“Should [these future projects] lead to a rise in income, open up economic opportunities and access to low-interest rate loans, it could narrow the inequality gap,” says Vimut.
International business center
Some leading businesses want to see more foreign companies set up operations in Bangkok.
“Bangkok should be a more international city,” says Stanley Kang, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand.
As part of his economic push, Chadchart has promised to work with the Board of Investment (BOI) to attract more foreign businesses. The BOI and the Revenue Department have been trying to attract multinational firms to set up their regional headquarters and an International Business Center in Bangkok, providing services to its associated enterprises overseas.
The new governor promises to create additional infrastructure and support the sourcing of skilled labor to facilitate international businesses. Among the initiatives is a one-stop service for businesses needing to apply for various licenses to operate from the Thai capital.
Despite his intentions and path-breaking ideas, Chadchart will face multiple challenges, such as finding the finance for those projects and seeking cooperation from the government via the Interior Ministry, which has considerable authority over many areas of the Bangkok administration.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) in recent years has had a yearly budget of about 70-80 billion baht along with a government grant.
“The BMA has limited capacity to collect more taxes,” Athiphat warned.
By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk