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    Bangkok mayoral hopefuls span wide range

    Monday, Aug 23, 2004, Page 5

    Chuwit Kamolvisit is a hard-driving, straight-talking businessman. The kind of person, he thinks, Bangkok needs as governor -- even if his resume does raise a few eyebrows.

    What's his business? Put plainly: prostitution.

    Chuwit is one of 22 dreamers and schemers vying for the approval of 3.8 million eligible voters who go the polls on Aug. 29.

    They are seeking to head a city that is a poster-child for 21st century urban ills -- life-shortening pollution, temper-fraying traffic, and 10 million people disinclined to follow any sort of regulations.

    Some are trying to launch political careers; others seeking a last hurrah. A few are just kooky.

    The governor is limited in his powers, since the central government controls the pursestrings for most essential services. The current one, Samak Sundaravej, seemed more interested in his televised cooking show than in fixing potholes. He isn't running for re-election.

    Some of the less savory candidates could tip the balance in deciding who will govern the sprawling Thai capital.

    Chuwit, 43, calls himself a bad guy, but says people in this "city of shame" can relate to him. He owns a string of massage parlors, thinly disguised fronts for prostitution employing about 2,000 young women.

    Though selling sex is illegal, laws against it are rarely enforced. Last year, Chuwit told of paying massive bribes to keep Bangkok's police off his back. His bravado impressed Bangkokians. Polls show he's running in the top four in a tight race.

    Chalerm Yoobamrung, 57, a veteran of 21 years of rough-and-tumble national politics, is a former police officer who has served as a minister in three governments. The conventional wisdom is that he got the jobs because he held files that a government would rather not have in the hands of the opposition.

    But that will not help his biggest handicap: his family. Chalerm's three sons have been known to run wild. The youngest was linked to the 2001 shooting of a policeman in a nightclub, fled the country, and in March this year was controversially acquitted of murder. Tarred by the scandal, Chalerm's chances of winning are poor.

    Those on the fringes include businesswoman Leena Jangjanya, 45, who hired a troupe of transvestite cabaret performers to create some hoopla when she went to city hall to register her candidacy. Her campaign literature features a photo of her posed sexily in lingerie.

    Former diplomat and lawmaker Kobsak Chutikul, 54, says he's running for governor "because I had nothing better to do." He wants to build Asia's tallest fountain in the middle of the city. It would rise and fall in time to traditional Thai music.

    Then there are the political heavyweights.

    Apirak Kosayodhin, 43, resigned as CEO of a mobile phone service provider to run under the banner of the Democrats, Thailand's oldest party. He's young and good looking, and has the sort of corporate experience that is in vogue among Thai voters.

    Paveena Hongsakul, a lawmaker from the Chat Pattana party, which recently agreed to merge with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party, is another front-runner.

    She's running as an independent, but is widely regarded as a proxy candidate for Thai Rak Thai, though they deny any deal.

    The reasoning is that Thaksin's popularity has slipped among Bangkok's relatively sophisticated electorate, and the party did not want to risk a loss ahead of next year's general election.

    Paveena, 55, has attracted attention through her tireless -- and tirelessly promoted -- crusading for the rights of abused women and children.

    Bhichit Rattakul, who served as governor in 1996-2000, is the joker in the deck. Bhichit, 58, was popular because he built parks and promoted the arts.

    Now, some people are calling him a spoiler, meant to draw votes from the Democrats. Their constituencies are the same: the educated middle class, especially those who dislike Thaksin.

    "Politics in Thailand is very subtle," says Chaiwat Thirapantu, director of Bangkok Forum, a nonpartisan civic action group. "There are many threads behind the scene, somebody who is pulling something together."
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