A Politician with a Past

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Being governor of Bangkok is a formidable job: among other headaches, the candidate elected at the end of this month for a four-year term will have to deal with traffic problems, slums and pollution in the city of 10 million. Recent polls say the front runner is Pavena Hongsakula, a 55-year-old champion of women's rights who is promising to crack down on crime. Her leading rival is Chuwit Kamolvisit, 43, the city's massage-parlor king, whose massive pleasure palaces are said to have employed up to 2,000 women at any given time. He's vowing to go after a different plaguecorruptionand says he has a unique qualification for that job. "I am a lowlife," Chuwit tells TIME. "Running Bangkok and running a massage parlor isn't all that different."

Chuwit's popularity springs from an unlikely transformation. Twenty months ago, a gang of thugs destroyed a strip of bars on a plot of land he owned. Police arrested Chuwit on suspicion of hiring the gang to muscle out unwanted tenants. Chuwit loudly proclaimed his innocence and lashed back at the police, publicly detailing the protection money, expensive watches and free massage services he claimed to have provided to officers over the years. He mounted an autobiographical one-man stage show (titled Chuwit, Alone and Shabby: Talk Show of the Year), published two books (The Golden Bath and My Confession: One Day I Will Commit Suicide) and turned himself into Bangkok's most vocal anticorruption advocatemuch to the delight of many locals. Says Supaporn Jitsomboom, an insurance broker: "What he says about the police and corruption is true. Besides, he puts on a good show."

Front runner Pavena is an old foe: in 2003, a charitable foundation she runs that helps abused children filed a complaint that Chuwit employed underage girls. Chuwit said he never did so deliberately, and a court acquitted him in June after employees testified they had used forged IDs to get jobs in his massage parlors. If he wins the governorship, Chuwit promises to devote all his time to the task of cleaning up Bangkokfrom cracking down on corruption to improving garbage collectioneven forgoing the luxury of vacations abroad. He doesn't have much choice: a court is still trying the case involving the bars that were destroyed. "The judge," Chuwit admits, "says I can't leave town."