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BANGKOK — If Thai politics has changed since demonstrators ousted a pro-military government in 1992 and set the stage for democratic reforms, you would hardly know it from watching the campaign for this month’s Bangkok gubernatorial election.

Public opinion polls show veteran politician Samak Sundaravej way out in front, and if anyone embodies the old-style politics, it is Samak. He is seen as acerbic, hot-tempered, autocratic and right-wing, and at 65 is much older than the “new generation” politicians running against him. A university lecturer who asked if voters wanted a governor who had “blood on his hands” has publicly accused Samak of inciting and justifying the October 1976 massacre of students demonstrating against dictatorship. As interior minister in the rightist government that the military installed after the massacre, Samak closed down newspapers, the lecturer said. Samak also sacked the popularly elected governor of Bangkok and made the post an appointee of the Interior Ministry, the newspaper Matichon (Public Opinion) recently pointed out. (Popular election was reinstated in 1985, by a different government.)

Also, the Prachakorn Thai Party (Thai People’s Party) that Samak leads was part of the pro-military coalition government opposed by demonstrators in the 1992 uprising. Thai newspapers said three of Thailand’s most notorious bigwigs are backing Samak’s gubernatorial campaign; they include a supporter of a 1991 military coup and a police commander who was removed from his post following the summary executions of six drug trafficking suspects in 1996.

Samak’s popularity may perplex outsiders, but it is not that surprising in the Thai context. While the 1992 uprising generally has brought about more democratic attitudes, many Thais retain a deep-seated yearning for paternalistic leaders who can take care of all their needs. Also, Thai elections typically revolve around (rather superficial) public perceptions of personalities, not issues. People favor Samak because they know his name and his fiery speeches; he heads a political party and has held eight Cabinet posts during more than two decades in national politics.

Many people see Samak as a “can-do” leader who has extensive connections and who will deliver. If you ask them what he has actually accomplished in government, however, few would be able to answer.

All the leading candidates have similar platforms, stocked with superficial approaches to the city’s traffic, pollution and other problems. But that’s still better than Samak. His ideas are hardly known. He refuses to appear in public forums with fellow candidates, and says there is not enough time for him to explain his policies in detail. One newspaper columnist surmised that Samak avoided these forums because he feared his weaknesses would be exposed.

It’s difficult to imagine voters in many other democratic countries allowing a candidate to take such a position, much less make him the frontrunner. The Thai apathy toward issues is not limited to the case of Samak. Last week I followed one of the leading candidates, Kalaya Sophonpanich, for 45 minutes as she introduced herself to voters in Siam Square, a shopping and entertainment area favored by Bangkok’s yuppies. I did not see anyone ask her a single question about her policies.

While reforms enshrined in the new constitution of 1997 (a result of the 1992 uprising) will increasingly decentralize political administration in Thailand, for now the Interior Ministry still appoints governors for all 76 provinces. Only Bangkok has an elected governor. If Samak wins the election, that would be quite an ideological retreat from the 1992 uprising, which was led by middle-class activists and professionals fed up with old-style politics. The capital also could reverse the progress made by outgoing Gov. Bhichit Rattakul, who encouraged people to participate in making decisions to improve their communities. A Samak administration could also pit Bangkok against the central government, making it difficult for the city to get the resources it needs. The Democrat Party of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and the Thai Rak Thai Party (Thais Love Thais Party) of telecommunications tycoon Taksin Shinawatra are the main contenders for the next general election, to be held later this year, and both are fielding candidates against Samak.

But a Samak win is far from certain: Thai opinion polls are frequently inaccurate, and Bangkok voters are unpredictable and fickle. The race also has some positive aspects. Voters will be able to choose from candidates with a much greater variety of personalities and social, political, and educational backgrounds than in previous elections. This time, candidates are talking less about building projects and more about “people-centered development” and improving the quality of life in the city.

The Bangkok campaign also is a big boost for Thai women in politics, where they are very much underrepresented. Three prominent women are running, and all are among the top five contenders.

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