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Ex-Property Mogul Wants to Be Thailand's Next PM on His Own Terms

Thailand Politics
Thailand Politics

Days before Thailand's national elections, the Pheu Thai party has winning numbers from the polls, a buzz from a baby and a candidate for prime minister who says there is still a reason for him to "gladly turn down" the top job of the executive branch.

On the morning of May 1, the candidate Srettha Thavisin, a real-estate mogul turned politician, felt under the weather, but he had a flight to catch from Bangkok to the northeast, his party's stronghold.

Before the busy day of campaigning began, Srettha took a moment to send a text message to Paetongtarn Shinawatra, who co-leads the Pheu Thai party, a political machine that had taken on many other official names during the waves of political tumult over the past two decades but never lost an election.

In the text, Srettha sent best wishes to Paetongtarn, who just gave birth to a baby boy, nicknamed Thasin, a nod to the new mother's father, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the mastermind of that political machine.

Srettha Thavisin waves to supporters while campaigning in Bangkok, Thailand, May 5, 2023.
Srettha Thavisin waves to supporters while campaigning in Bangkok, Thailand, May 5, 2023.

Thaksin's populist ideals and grassroots support have outlasted two military coups — he was ousted in 2006, and his younger sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014 — are now setting Pheu Thai on course for victory in the May 14 elections.

As Srettha spoke at the rally in Sakhon Nakhon, about 650 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, he pumped up the crowd with the news of Baby Thasin's arrival.

"Let's congratulate the Shinawatra family. Today at 7 a.m., Mr. Thaksin just had his seventh grandchild," Srettha said, the mic amplifying his voice so raspy he apologized.

In recent polls, Pheu Thai has consistently been projected to win the biggest bloc of seats in the parliament. After the election, the party will pick its final nomination of prime minister from the list of three — Srettha, Paetongtarn and Chaikasem Nitisiri, a former attorney general and a justice minister.

A survey released on May 3 by a research arm of the National Institute of Development Administration, NIDA Poll, said Pheu Thai is most likely to win more seats than its rivals. NIDA based the results on 2,500 respondents who participated in the poll from April 24-28. It also asked whom eligible voters prefer for the next prime minister. Paetongtarn came ahead of Srettha, winning 29.20% of the surveyed voters versus 6.76%, while Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha chalked up a 14.84% share.

They all trailed behind Pita Limjaroenrat of the youth-backed Move Forward Party who dominated the poll at 35.44%.

Srettha said he will decline the prime minister post if his party has to form a coalition government with Prayuth, who led the 2014 coup, or with the party of General Prawit Wongsuwon, an ally of Prayuth.

"I don't believe in military coups," Srettha said in an interview with VOA Thai. "The idea of me working with them in the same government, sitting in the same Cabinet … I can't see myself doing that."

"I want to be prime minister, not for the sake of being a prime minister. I want to be the prime minister who can make huge difference for the Thai society economically and socially. If the environment is not conducive for me to do that, I would gladly turn down the position of prime minister," he added. Domestic economic issues have dominated the campaign season.

Political interest

The 60-year-old straight-talking Srettha lacks the instant sparkle that generates mass appeal, but he has business acumen that could evoke the confidence millions of voters had in Thaksin. And the 6-foot-4-inch onetime property developer has a flair for brand building.

Before his political debut this year, Srettha helped build a family real-estate business into an empire called Sansiri Development, worth $880 million in market capitalization. Srettha positioned his company to attract upper-income home buyers and dialed up its posh image by completing construction on an uber-lux Bangkok condominium project, 98 Wireless, seven years ago at a prime location — next door to the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Thailand.

Srettha was able to sell 98 Wireless at the country's top market price of more than $16,000 per square meter. He told the Thai Rath newspaper the 25-floor structure features rare Italian marble surfaces, Ralph Lauren Home interior designs and elaborate wall details executed by craftspeople who worked on Buckingham Palace and the White House.

For decades, Srettha has known Thaksin, whose family also runs real estate businesses. But the despair Srettha felt for Thailand led him into politics, he said.

"We, you, look around yourself when you're sitting at the top of the pyramid, you don't just look at the same levels. You look at below of how other people live," Srettha said, a gold Rolex watch with a green dial encircling his wrist.

"I feel saddened by what I have seen. Because of social disparity, in terms of education, in terms of getting healthcare, in terms of basic things like getting food on the table, it's still not the way it's supposed to be for a country that has enormous potential like Thailand," he said.

Srettha said he felt more motivated to be in politics after seeing the impact of COVID-19 on Thailand. The country's GDP fell by 6.1% in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund and 70% of households experienced a decline in income, according to a World Bank poll.

"What gravitated me toward the Pheu Thai party is they have the people's interest at heart," he said. "They weren't really actively persuading me to join. It's more like mutually agreed."

Realistic about change

Pheu Thai shares a common goal with the Move Forward Party: ending the regime under Prayuth, who has been prime minister for almost nine years.

But Pheu Thai and Move Forward also compete with each other to win progressive constituents as the latter positions itself as the fiercest advocate for fighting against business monopoly and amending the strict royal defamation laws, known as lèse-majesté, that carry a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.

While Srettha wants to resolve both topics through parliamentary debates, he knows more about monopolies than lèse-majesté.

On handling large conglomerates in Thailand, he said: "You have to have realistic expectations. You won't break them up, but you would make sure that they actually do allow the small businesses to grow … I'm not here to hurt the big guys. I'm here to help the small guys."

However, Srettha, the father of three adult children, all Western educated, wants to take a step back to find out whether the harsh royal defamation law is actually at the heart of discontent among the youths who help drive national discussion on the topic.

"I haven't talked to them long enough. I don't know what are their unhappiness … I don't know what their happiness is. We need to talk. If we talk, we discuss," Srettha said. "Maybe monarchy is not one of their issues. But if it is, then let's continue talking … If you think the current law needs to be changed, then you work through parliament."