28 May 2024

While most newly elected politicians enjoy a “honeymoon period” with the public, incoming Bangkok Governor Chadchart Sittipunt expects nothing of this kind.

“There’s no time for a honeymoon,” Chadchart declared, even before the May 22 election vote count showed he had won by a landslide. Instead, he wanted to start working right away in an all-out effort to honor his election promises to Bangkokians as soon as possible.

Historically, the wave of popularity that brings a new leader to power lasts through the honeymoon period, after which the relationship between the public and their elected representative faces the usual ups and downs of any marriage.

Most popular Bangkok governor ever

With a record tally of 1,386,215 votes, Chadchart is easily the most popular Bangkok governor to date. And though the new Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) chief insists he’s not interested in a smooth ride on this wave of popularity, he said he sees voters’ support as both his compass and shield.

“We represent Bangkok people. So, our decisions will be based on their benefits. We will stand firm on this ground, and the people of Bangkok will have our backs,” Chadchart said.

His eye is now focused on Bangkok’s seasonal flooding, public safety, street vendors and the whopping 40-billion-baht debt City Hall owes for the BTS Green Line.

Hot potato

Among Chadchart’s many priorities, the BTS contract is a particularly thorny problem. Under the current contract, Bangkok Mass Transit System Plc (BTSC) has the concession to operate the BTS Green Line and its extension until 2042. BTS is also the concessionaire of the original Green Line network until 2029.

Chadchart has queried why the contracts were previously extended by PM General Prayut Chan-o-cha under absolute powers conferred by Article 22 of the interim constitution, instead of being put to tender in the normal competitive and transparent process.

Chadchart said he wants to discuss the issue with BMA and its investment arm, Krungthep Thanakom.

While campaigning for votes, Chadchart openly described Krungthep Thanakom as a breeding ground of corruption. Now he wants to pore over the BTSC contract to see how he can make BTS Skytrain fares more reasonable as well as protect the BMA’s interests.

When the governor encountered Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob at a merit-making ceremony to mark HM Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana’s birthday on Friday morning, he rushed forward to say he wanted to meet for a discussion. This discussion, when held, is expected to address the Green Line issue.

However, former deputy Bangkok governor Samart Ratchapolsitte, who is now deputy leader of the Democrat Party, does not think Chadchart will be able to solve the Green Line problem that easily.

“These problems have lasted for a long time, and they are complicated too,” he said. “If he changes the contracts, legal disputes will erupt. Plus, the BMA owes the BTSC a huge amount of money.”

Bangkok Governor hopes to reduce BTS fares, meet anti-corruption watchdog

Limited budget

Over and above these complicated problems, Chadchart’s city administration now faces the hindrance of a very limited budget.

By the time Chadchart became governor, the BMA under his junta-appointed predecessor Aswin Kwanmuang had already spent most of the so-called investment budget of 14.22 billion baht it had been allocated for the fiscal year 2022. The current fiscal year runs for another four months until September 30.

However, Samart said that as of May 25, only about 94 million baht of the budget remained.

Chadchart, so far, has refused to let budget constraints bother him. When asked about the shortfall, the new governor said he should still be able to implement many of his policies because they do not require too much money.

“Traffy Fondue, for instance, is free,” he said. Traffy Fondue is a platform designed to empower and engage residents in the running of their city by allowing them to report problems for quicker resolutions.

Tavida Kamolvej, who will serve as one of Governor Chadchart’s deputies, confirmed there was little left from the 2022 budget.

“The new governor should be able to do more by replanning the 2023 budget spending,” she said, in her previous role as dean of Thammasat University’s Political Science Faculty.

Voters’ expectations

Tavida believes that Chadchart’s election win across every district of Bangkok reflects not just his popularity but also voters’ high expectations of the man and his team. Most city residents voted for Chadchart knowing that he and his team had been planning to take the helm in Bangkok for more than two years leading up to the election.

“So, they [voters] expect the team to deliver tangible results soon,” she said.

Chadchart campaigned on a platform of 214 mini-policies targeted at a diverse range of issues, with the idea of “connecting the dots” to solve the capital’s infrastructure and resources problems.

Tavida said the problems Chadchart must address immediately are flooding, traffic congestion, public safety, and economic hardship.

Meanwhile, the incoming governor’s pledge to empower residents to develop policies for their own communities through innovations such as participatory budgeting meant Chadchart would have to make deep structural changes to city governance, she added.

“Structural changes, of course, cannot happen in 50 or 100 days, but he has to take the first step and push them through,” Tavida said. “Without structural changes, his policies will hit snags when it comes to implementation.”

Assoc Prof Dr Olarn Thinbangtieo, who teaches at Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science, shares the same opinion, pointing out that many current city regulations are outdated.

“Previous Bangkok governors could not deliver much because they were chained down by these outdated rules,” Olarn said.

The academic emphasized that if the new governor wants to revolutionize the BMA and honor his election policies, he will need to remove structural obstacles and cumbersome rules.

“It’s high time that the BMA improved,” Olarn said. “Let’s see if Chadchart can help the BMA perform with agility and independence, and with minimum interference from central government.”

The national government inevitably wields strong influence over Bangkok affairs since the BMA falls under the supervision of the Interior Ministry.

Olarn advised Chadchart to counter government power by adopting a new local governance strategy, one that engages stakeholders from different sectors, for the benefit of one and all.

Since Chadchart is not interested in easing into the job with a honeymoon, he must prove instead that he can get everyone, not just voters, on board with his policies.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk