On the campaign trail with man who wants to be Bangkok governor

BANGKOK - A steady drizzle shrouds much of Bangkok and the view is more than magical from Wat Sraket, a gilded temple sitting on an artificial hill.

Mr Pongsapat Pongcharoen, the leading candidate of the Bangkok gubernatorial elections set for March 3, takes a breather after seeking blessings.  He stares into the horizon, brows purposefully furrowed, like the captain of ship out at sea. It’s a posture he maintains for a few awkward minutes as photographers swarm around for the best shot.

An hour later, he will reprise this pose by a fetid canal, his gaze penetrating its brackish waters as vendors hurry past with their wares. Again, the cameras will go click, click and click.

Life on the campaign trial is like a grittier version of the Truman Show. In the 1998 satire, the character played by Jim Carrey discovers to his horror that every moment of his life is captured on screen and plots an escape from this artificial world. Fast forward to present day Bangkok, where 24 candidates – including former governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra  - are vying for chance to run the capital city of Asean’s second largest economy . Mr Pongsapat, who is representing the ruling Puea Thai party, not only loves the lens but courts its glare.

“Thay ruup! Thay ruup!” the middle-aged ladies call out, requesting to be photographed with the former deputy national police chief, who, in his trademark white shirt with rolled-up sleeves looks younger than his 57 years. Manga-style Puea Thai campaign T-shirts take another 20 years off his lean frame. Mr Pongsapat agrees to every single request, flashing a dimpled smile obligingly.The political rookie may have an uphill task convincing residents in the Democrat stronghold to give him their votes, but he proves adept at milking  Thailand’s political papparazi for its worth.

At Bo Bae market, where hundreds of clothing vendors spill onto the sidewalks, Mr Pongsapat spies a nun in standing by the road. Where are you going, he asks her, and she replies that she is returning to her temple. Almost on cue, a public bus trundles up.  He escorts her up the steps by lightly holding on to her elbow.

The nun looks mildly bemused.  Monks and nuns, after all, can’t vote in Thailand.

Puea Thai supporters fan out ahead of his arrival, handing out stalks of roses to vendors lining his route.  The idea is for vendors to present the roses to Mr Pongsapat when he arrives, though the odd stalk remains firmly in the hands of reluctant individuals.

Nearing the end of his morning trail, he ducks into a corner of the market and emerges on a footbridge over Phadung Krung Kasem canal. On a peculiar clearing on an otherwise crowded and slippery span, stands a white board propped up against an easel.

He pulls up a plastic stool next to the whiteboard and begins sketching out his plans for the area. There will be more parks and spaces built for vendors over the canals, he says, deftly working his marker. Financing will come from the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration as well as the government, he adds, beaming at his Puea Thai colleague seated next to him.

And the cameras snap away.

The “impromptu” news briefing is over in a couple of minutes. The stools are cleared, and the easel disappears, and locals eagerly push their motorcycles back to their rightful parking space.

tanhy@sph.com.sg