Fri, Jun 24, 2011 - Page 5 News List

Massage parlor kingpin, general woo Thai voters

COMEDY AND CONTROVERSY:A former director-general of the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand appears on posters with a panda in an attempt to boost his appeal

AFP, BANGKOK

A charismatic former massage parlor kingpin and a one-time coup general are among the wilder characters wooing voters as elections loom in politically volatile Thailand.

Among the mostly banal images of suited hopefuls on party billboards, a few candidates stand out — one gripping a panda, a man who appears to be suffering from eye-popping road rage and another with the head of a buffalo.

With the comedy also comes controversy — one poll hopeful was in charge of overthrowing an elected government five years ago in a military coup that eventually led to deadly street protests and a deep rift in society.

The man he ousted from power was former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose sister is now the main opposition candidate for prime minister.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak described the candidacy of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, a Muslim hoping for votes in the insurgency-plagued deep south, as a “farce for Thai democracy.”

Only slightly less controversial is Chuvit Kamolvisit, a businessman who made his fortune with a string of massage parlors and hotels, and has admitted to bribing authorities in the past.

Even so he has vowed to fight corruption, a stance some see as surprising given his colorful past.

“I am the insider, I know how to pay, I know how to bribe,” he said. “You see bribery in Thailand is a deeper issue, problem than anyone can think ... everybody likes me. They like the truth, but no one wants to say the truth.”

Chuvit — whose posters show him in odd poses angrily clutching a steering wheel or squeamishly holding a baby — described the traditional party candidates as “dinosaurs” in uniform or suits.

Former director-general of the Zoological Park Organization of Thailand Sophon Damnui is trying a different tactic, appearing on posters with a giant panda in an attempt to boost his appeal.

“People ask who they should vote for — the one with the bald head or the one with the black eyes,” the follicly challenged politician said on a recent walkabout at a Bangkok zoo to showcase his environmental credentials.

The July 3 election is mainly a fight between the incumbent Democrats and the Puea Thai party, allied to Thaksin, but these parties represent the two sides of a damaging split in Thai society and analysts say some voters will be searching for alternatives.

Political analyst and author Chris Baker said there were “people who are rather fed up of the recent politics” and wanted to cast their vote in a “non-standard way.”

Puea Thai has pulled ahead in the opinion polls, but it may still have to form a coalition with smaller parties to be able to govern.

It remains to be seen whether Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister and the Puea Thai candidate for prime minister, would be willing to join forces with the general who removed her brother from power.

The most bizarre posters of all aim to persuade people not to vote for any party by portraying politicians with the heads of various different animals, an image Thitinan said was “very offensive” in Thailand.

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