The 25 candidates bidding to become Bangkok's next governor have one thing in common: a flair for creative thinking. That became apparent earlier this week as they revealed campaign platforms ranging from the innovative to the fanciful and the downright weird to the impractical. And there are plenty more promises still waiting to be rolled out. First, though, the candidates should read the governor's job definition again to avoid disappointment.
Among the pledges are new parks, free bus and boat services, a 20-baht flat rate for the skytrain and 10 baht for air-conditioned buses, a costly new monorail, traffic tunnel and bridge spanning the Chao Phraya, a toilet at each of the capital's 4,900 bus stops, city-wide incinerators, a guarantee of no more floods and more closed-circuit TV cameras to deter crime. Now it is time to return to earth and face some troublesome facts. Although the city governor is elected, in reality he or she has far less power than most people think. The city administration is heavily reliant on the central government and its state agencies, most of which are reluctant to delegate authority to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) for fear their own status and power might be eroded.
What Bangkok's city administration really needs is greater autonomy to make its own decisions in the same way as Tokyo, London or New York. Without it, many of the pledges being made by the candidates will be impossible to keep. That is because the authority to implement them lies elsewhere. Funding has always been a major stumbling block, even when city and national administrations come under the same political party. Getting a project off the ground usually involves a great deal of political haggling with the central government. What is needed now, above all else, is full-scale administrative reform to propel the BMA into the 21st century.
The National Institute for Development Administration says City Hall makes about 61 billion baht in revenue a year which is 43 times less than Tokyo and 31 times less than New York. Worse yet, 24% of the BMA's budget consists of funds allocated by the central government, hamstringing attempts at independence. This is in comparison with 11% in funds allocated by the state for New York City and only 5.2% in Tokyo. Nor is the BMA helped by the bureaucratic top-down way in which it is structured. But this was intentional. It was conceived at the time of the administrative merger of Bangkok and Thon Buri in 1972, which gave us today's Bangkok metropolis. But the military government of the time was reluctant to share real power and limited the governor's authority, rendering him incapable of serving all who elected him.
His role is to oversee the BMA's budget and supervise some 90,000 municipal officials while keeping the City Council engaged in productive debate. He can only play a limited role in easing traffic congestion because the BMA's authority is restricted to the construction of local roads and bridges, the painting and erecting of road signs and street and footpath maintenance. He has to concern himself, among other things, with building safety which includes entertainment venues and fire prevention codes and inspections, excess water drainage and floods, control of street vendors, the 433 BMA schools, health centres, youth centres, traffic calming, the lighting of public areas, animal control, municipal garbage collection, road works and hygiene.
That there is no shortage of candidates for a job once termed "mission impossible", which involves long hours, a torrent of public abuse when things go wrong and a distinct lack of glamour, shows a welcome commitment to public service. Either that or a misunderstanding of what the job really entails.