Tycoon Eyeing Power Says Election Would Help Thai Economy Grow

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(Bloomberg) -- Elections in Thailand would address concerns about the political risks that weigh on Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, according to the leader of a key political party.

Some of the Thailand’s trading partners are refraining from expanding ties until an elected government replaces the military administration that’s been in power since a coup in 2014, said Anutin Charnvirakul, multimillionaire businessman and leader of the Bhum Jai Thai Party.

"The fact we have a government that allows the country’s leaders to do what they want, despite using these laws ethically, doesn’t inspire confidence and can’t increase the level of comfort for our trading partners," Anutin said in an interview Tuesday in Bangkok. "Decisions they must make in relation to Thailand are stalled until elections have passed."

A potential power broker in the next government, Anutin is chairman of steelmaker STP&I Pcl and was formerly president of Sino-Thai Engineering & Construction Pcl. His shareholdings in the two companies are worth a combined $66 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Anutin said he’d quit STP&I once the junta scraps a ban on political activity in Thailand.

Power Broker

The 51-year-old is viewed as having good relationships with the biggest players in politics, a rarity in a polarized nation. In 2008, his party showed its strength by shifting the balance of power in parliament to allow Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to become prime minister, ousting a government backed by ex-Premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand’s military government has said it wants to join an 11-member Asia-Pacific trade pact and revive free trade talks with the European Union, but uncertainty over the domestic political outlook has delayed progress. The junta has repeatedly pushed back timelines for elections, most recently to around February next year.

"Those who trade with us need clarity," Anutin said, adding four years is long enough for the military to be in power. He said he believed former army chief turned prime minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha will stick to his pledge of holding an election in 2019.

Prayuth is trying to spur infrastructure investment, develop advanced industries and cut red tape to bolster an economy reliant on exports and tourism. The agenda has included a tilt toward China, exemplified by a planned 180 billion baht ($5.8 billion) joint high-speed rail project.

Yet economic expansion slowed to 4 percent in October to December from a year earlier, missing estimates and trailing Southeast Asian neighbors.

Prayuth seized power after a period of political unrest, pledging to restore stability before bringing back an elected government. The current stretch of military rule is one of the longest since the 1970s, in a country with a history of coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932.

Parties linked to the exiled Thaksin have won the past five elections, only to be unseated by the courts or the military. The discord reflects deep fissures in Thai society between urban royalists, known as the yellow shirts, and Thaksin and his mostly rural support base, the red shirts.

The next vote will be under a military-backed constitution, which critics say gives appointed soldiers, judges and bureaucrats the power to stifle elected politicians.

At the same time, Anutin said the system of proportional representation required by the charter gives smaller and medium-sized parties such as Bhum Jai Thai the chance to win more seats.

"I don’t mind being in a coalition, a leader if people have trust in me, or the opposition faction," Anutin said, when asked what role he and his party might play and whether he could be a consensus candidate for prime minister.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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