What goes up must come down: such is the law of political gravity. For a while the Governor of Bangkok, Chadchart Sittipunt, looked like he was an all-conquering colossus who bestrode the political landscape with rockstar popularity and an electoral mandate difficult to rival. Scarcely five months after he was elected in a landslide, however, the governor’s honeymoon period seems over.
That the issues he faces would occur under just about any governor is an obvious point, and having only spent a few months in office, he can only have done so much. Bangkok’s flooding is, after all, a perennial problem. But it is also true that the monsoon season has paralyzed the capital in a manner embarrassing for the governor.
His supporters argue that solutions like dredging the canals had to be done long before the rains started under the previous governor. Yet political perceptions defy rational logic; the electorate cannot help but wonder whether the new governor who promised a fresh style of governance can only bring more of the same.
Among the critics is Chuvit Kamolvisit, a previous candidate for Bangkok governor, who criticized Chadchart for ineffective management of the Bangkok bureaucracy and an inability to respond strategically to the floods. “The governor does not know how to coordinate the agencies, who only nod their heads…and say yes with their mouths” Chuvit said. “[They] don’t trust his management style.”
Harsh criticism, to be sure, and the public is hardly in a position to confirm or deny the allegations that Chadchart is unable to manage a recalcitrant bureaucracy. Yet it is a storied concept in the Thai bureaucratic world: the placing of poison pills to trip over a new executive. Is it true? The governor himself denies it, but in any case, the end result is the same: his popularity will be inevitably washed away by the rain.
Sky High Expectations
To make matters worse, Chadchart’s troubles follow what looks like stymied progress in other areas. Notably, it follows a backtracking on his promise to bring down fares for the BTS skytrain system, where Chadchart had campaigned on a maximum fare of 25-30 baht. He clarified after his election that this promise applied only to a ride between 8 and 11 stations, whereas the skytrain system has 59 stations.
There are also the smaller things. Complaints now pop up regularly on social media of problems going inadequately addressed after being reported through Bangkok’s Traffy Fondue system, which Chadchart has encouraged Bangkokians to use.
For a governor who pledged responsiveness, it represents damage to his political stature by a thousand small cuts.
Fundamentally, there was perhaps no other direction for the governor to go but down after the high point of his election. How do you fulfill the sky-high expectations placed by over a million people in all 50 of Bangkok’s districts?
As a candidate, Chadchart was notable for his mastery of social media and his ability to connect with voters. Once newly elected, Chadchart morphed from candidate to celebrity, with cameras following his every move — from his morning runs to his dancing at music festivals in public parks.
Now, he has become a lightning rod for the charge from non-supporters that he is too focused on PR — that is he more about style than substance, more about livestreaming than taking real action.
If that is how Chadchart’s tenure is remembered, it would be a shame. His campaign distinguished itself for being laser-focused on substantive issues.
Indeed, the releasing of over 200 policies with detailed proposals, and even translations into English, was a big step forward in Thai politics that I hope future political campaigns will emulate.
The governor’s 200+ policy proposals were a contract with the people of Bangkok, pledges that the electorate that voted him in hopes that he will keep. I would also like to humbly suggest that they are the first principles to which he returns as he tries to shore up his governorship.
Chadchart has spoken often of the importance of open data and transparent governance. The best way for him to shake the charge that he is too PR-focused and that his agenda has been stymied is to demonstrate that he is making steady progress on the issues on which he campaigned — and that he is keeping his promises.
Election Promise Tracking System
It would be helpful for the citizens of Bangkok if the governor’s team could create a progress tracker for all 215 policies that Chadchart proposed during the election. Categorize them into four sections: the ones he has already accomplished, the ones under progress, those he has not yet commenced work on, and those that have to be put on hold indefinitely because they are, for whatever reason, no longer possible.
If this was done it would be a major innovation in Thai politics: for the people to be able to keep track of what progress the people who work for them are making on the pledges, they made to earn their votes.
Sure, the number of accomplished policies might be a bit lacking for the next few months. But as he accumulates wins, Chadchart will be able to demonstrate that he is not all talk.
They may not necessarily be policies that are visible in everyday life, and they may not be the pressing irresolvable issues like flooding. But we all want to see Bangkok also make progress on areas like education, public health, the environment, the creative economy, and City Hall management.
It would also serve Chadchart well for people to understand why some of his policies are taking more time to achieve. We cannot expect the governor to accomplish all his goals in the first 6 months of his tenure. But what are the priorities that he is currently focusing on, and the ones that he is placing on the backburner?
What are the difficulties he is facing in, say, making Bangkok’s schools better or building more public parks? We would love to know — and perhaps in a participatory democracy, public input would be invaluable for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration as it continues its work.
I wish the governor well. His honeymoon period may be over, as it inevitably must end for any politician. Yet even as he faces more difficult political waters, he owes it to the millions of Bangkokians, including nearly half of the electorate who did not cast their ballots for him, to deliver on the promises that he made. For, after all, his successes are also our successes.