Sunday, February 17, 2013

Campaigning for Her Candidate

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is showered in roses while campaigning for Pongsapat Pongcharoen, who is running for Governor of Bangkok

Bangkok is in the midst of election fever. The city's voters will elect their Governor on March 3. There are a handful of candidates running but the two leading candidates are the Democrats' Sukhumbhand Paribatra, the sort of incumbent (he has been Bangkok governor since 2009, but "resigned" to run for reelection) and Police General Pongsabat Pongcharoen (retired), who is running on the Pheu Thai ticket. 

Bangkok is the heart of the Democrats' power base. They traditionally carry the city comfortably in national elections. Sukhumbhand was a popular Governor in his first term. Then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva carried Bangkok but lost the 2011 general election to Pheu Thai's Yingluck Shinawatra

Pheu Thai, the latest incarnation of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's power base, is centered in northern Thailand and has an ironclad majority in rural Thailand. Yingluck is Thaksin's sister and surrogate. Retired Police General Pongsabat Pongcharoen is running under the Pheu Thai banner. 

Early polls have given Pongsapat a comfortable, but not commanding, lead and at this point he is favored to win. 

A Pongsapat victory could signal a seismic shift in Thai politics. Relations between the Yingluck government and the Sukhumbhand administration in Bangkok have not always been comfortable. Especially during the floods of 2011 there were noticeable disagreements between the PM and the Governor, with finger pointing and both sides blaming the other for making the disastrous floods worse. Although Yingluck is personally popular in Bangkok, her party (and the Red Shirts) is not always popular with the old school Thai elite. 

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra walks through Old Siam Plaza in Chinatown campaigning on behalf of Pongsapat. Photographed with my 24mm f1.4

I've been covering the campaign on a pretty haphazard basis. There are so many candidates and they are campaigning so aggressively that on any given day there's a good chance of running into one of them. 

I ran into the Democrats' Sukhumbhand campaigning on Silom Road, in Bangkok's financial district, a couple of weeks ago. I didn't set out to photograph the campaign, but I got off the subway and there he was. 

Saturday, I went to the Weekend Market to test a camera I had just gotten back from repair and I ran into former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva campaigning on the Skytrain for Sukhumbhand. I didn't plan to photograph the campaign on Saturday but what are you going to do when you're standing next to the former PM on the train? So I made pictures. 

Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjiajiva rides the Skytrain campaigning for Sukhumband

Sunday, I set out to photograph the Pongsapat campaign. Because I don't speak Thai, I work with a Thai journalist when I cover politics. Together we went down to the old part of the city and I photographed Pongsapat when he went walkabout along the riverfront. It was old school retail politics. He helped a woman in a wheelchair (the moment was obviously camera made and might have been scripted, but I don't think it was, I think he lucked into it), walked around shaking hands, exchanging "wais" and talking to voters. Afterwards he did a question and answer session with commuters. 

Transportation and gridlock has emerged as the key issue in this election and everyone wants to know what the next governor will do about the city's horrible traffic. Pongsapat has promised to improve bike opportunities in Bangkok and improve the city's mass transit. Others have promised improvements in the highway system and mass transit. 

Then we went to the Old Siam Plaza, a shopping center on the edge of Chinatown, for a Pongsapat campaign rally. In a moment ripped from the playbook of American politics, the campaign put the photographers on trucks to follow the candidate but forgot to tell the candidate, who wasn't going anywhere. The photographers were taken to a temple a few kilometers away, told the candidate would be here shortly and pushed out of the trucks. We wandered around a market behind the temple but there was no sign of the candidate or anyone from his campaign. 

Phones started beeping and radios were chattering. We started getting texts (me from my Thai colleague, them from co-workers) telling us Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was going to be at Siam Plaza campaigning for Pongsapat. 

In a sort of controlled panic, we flagged down a fleet of "tuk-tuks" and raced back to Siam Plaza. Where we waited. And waited some more. And about 30 minutes later the Prime Minister, the candidate and their entourage showed up. 

I photographed the early part of the rally with my 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.2 and 20mm f1.7 (on my Lumix GX1). I used my 200mm lens for tight close ups of Yingluck and Pongsapat while they talked about Bangkok's traffic. For photographers used to covering politics in the US, where everything is tightly controlled, covering Thai politics is a joy. I was able to work within inches of the Thai Prime Minister and her security was professional and courteous. Nothing was scripted and we were given great access. 

After the rally, we climbed back on the trucks for a motorcade through the city. We cruised the city streets (and contributing mightily to the gridlock in that part of town) for about 20 minutes. I photographed the motorcade with my 200mm lens and the 45mm lens on my GX1. (Because the GX1 has a 2X crop factor, the 20mm lens = a 40 on my Canons and the 45 = 90 on the Canons.) 

The motorcade photographed with my 200. Someone on the street tossed hats up to Pongsapat and Yingluck to protect them from the sun. I thought the chapeaus were quite stylish. 

We got off the trucks at Khao San Road, the heart of Bangkok's "backpacker" district and walked the street. Thais rushed out to greet Yingluck - she got a rock star's reception all along the motorcade. She seems to be enormously personally popular. I photographed the Khao San walkabout with my short lenses. Most of the tourists were bewildered by the hubbub created by the passing politicians. 

From there it was on to a temple where Yingluck took some time to pray (presumably for a Pheu Thai victory next month) and received blessings from a Buddhist monk. I used my short lenses in the temple.

After that it was back to my apartment to edit and transmit. There are more photos of the campaign in my archive and available from ZUMA Press.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.