Thai Party Chasing Election Landslide Keeps Door Open for Tie-Up With Like-Minded Groups

Thailand’s most popular political party is open to forming a government with like-minded groups if its array of populist proposals, including an immediate handout of about $16 billion, fails to secure what it calls a “landslide” win.

(Bloomberg) — Thailand’s most popular political party is open to forming a government with like-minded groups if its array of populist proposals, including an immediate handout of about $16 billion, fails to secure what it calls a “landslide” win.

Pheu Thai, which leads in most pre-poll surveys, will not form an alliance with the military-backed conservative parties headed by former coup-leaders, said Srettha Thavisin, a high-profile former real estate mogul running as one of the party’s three prime ministerial candidates. The party is backed by ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, an enduring yet polarizing figure in Thai politics whose term was marked by allegations of corruption.

A power struggle is intensifying ahead of the May 14 general election, in which more than 52 million Thai voters will elect 500 members of the House of Representatives. While Pheu Thai is targeting to win 310 seats — from 136 in 2019 — it will need the support of at least 376 lawmakers to tilt the scale in an electoral system that favors the establishment.

“We will be the main party that will form the coalition government, if not the only party,” Srettha, 60, said in an interview in Bangkok on Monday. “If we win a high 200, then obviously we need to join hands with other people who have the same beliefs and policies.”

That sets to rest speculation over an unlikely alliance between Pheu Thai and the ruling Palang Pracharath Party as a way to ease decades-long conflict between supporters of Thaksin and the royalist establishment. 

Pheu Thai, which has built its campaign around measures to fire up household income to counter high debt and cash injection to stimulate the economy, is on course to win close to 50% of votes, according to several surveys. Its flagship digital wallet proposal of giving 10,000 baht to every Thai aged 16 and up, will cost 560 billion baht ($16 billion). It also pledged a 70% hike in minimum wage, household income of 20,000 baht per month and tripling of farm profits to boost economic growth to 5%, if elected.

Parties linked to Thaksin have won the most seats in every election in the past 20 years, supported by voters from Thailand’s vast rural heartlands, only to be unseated by military coups or dissolutions backed by conservative authorities who disapprove of their populist agendas. But a win in the general election may not guarantee it power, as the 250-member senate packed by supporters of the old guard will select the next premier along with the lower house.

“After every coup, the country’s gone backwards,” Srettha said, adding the country has fallen behind neighbors on economic growth during the near decade-long regime of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha. “People have suffered enough, and it’s clearly evident that the military coups have been entirely damaging to the country.”

Thaksin was ousted in 2006, while the government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra was thrown out by Prayuth in 2014. Detractors accuse Thaksin and his allies of vote-buying, fiscal recklessness and failing to do enough to tackle corruption. Yingluck also fled the country in 2017 rather than face jail in a criminal case related to a costly policy of paying farmers above-market rates for their rice crop. Like Thaksin, she says the charges against her were politically motivated.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest daughter, is the latest figure from the storied clan and the most-favored premier candidate from Pheu Thai this time. Her party is facing a challenge from Move Forward Party, another opposition group that’s also surging in pre-vote polls. Under the rules, parties may nominate up to three prime ministerial candidates ahead of the vote. After the election, only candidates from parties with at least 25 seats in the lower house qualify for premiership.

Still, Thailand’s relative stability since the 2014 coup is often highlighted by the pro-military, royalist parties. In the past years, the economy has sought to reposition itself into a manufacturing hub for green industries such as electric vehicles, smart electronics and chips, which can generate hundreds of thousands of jobs. The government also plans to build high-speed railway lines, including a connection to China via Laos.

Srettha, who quit his chief executive role at luxury developer Sansiri Pcl after more than 30 years in the private sector, has emerged as a key campaigner for the Pheu Thai party with Paetongtarn cutting down her public engagements due to her pregnancy. 

Srettha said he was “very confident” the Senate will honor the will of the people and not come in the way of a party or group that secures the majority support of the lower chamber.

As he traveled around Thailand to rally support for Pheu Thai, Srettha said the desire for change was evident. His main agenda is to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor.

“When you look into their eyes, you see desperation that they’re facing — high debt, low income, high cost of living, low freedom. It’s evident. Nine years is a long time,” he said. 

–With assistance from Stephen Engle, Rika Yoshida, Clarissa Batino and Adrian Leung.

(Updates with context on Thaksin in second and ninth paragraphs.)

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