April 17, 2023
NAKHON NAYOK/BANGKOK – The Bhumjaithai Party, also known as the Thai Pride Party in English, is marching into the May 14 election with its head held high after having fulfilled its campaign pledges – most notable of which was to liberalise the cannabis policy in Thailand.
Under the leadership of construction magnate-turned-politician Anutin Charnvirakul, the party is heading into the election with confidence.
It has set its sights on winning at least 100 of the 500 seats up for grabs in Parliament’s Lower House and, if successful, will cement its position as a key power broker in a post-election coalition government.
Even its 2023 election slogan – “Said it and did it” – exudes its levels of certainty, especially over its performance during its four years in the incumbent coalition led by the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP).
“With our remarkable performance, we (have) delivered everything that we promised to our people. This will create confidence in our people to select the Bhumjaithai Party, to elect Bhumjaithai back into Parliament, in hopes that we will be able to be part of the administration,” Mr Anutin told The Straits Times on the sidelines of a rally in the central province of Nakhon Nayok last Tuesday.
The successful move to decriminalise the plant is a badge of honour for the party. And this narrative as an effective policy-pusher has primed the Bhumjaithai as a possible power broker in Thailand’s next government, with rumours swirling over its purported deals with rival parties as the nation’s general election draws close.
During the 2019 election, the party campaigned heavily on the promise to liberalise cannabis in Thailand for medical and economic benefits.
In 2022, the plant was delisted as a narcotic, opening a new market for its wider cultivation and use.
However, the Bhumjaithai has also received flak from rival parties and welfare groups, which criticise the move as rushed and incomplete.
Currently, a Bill to regulate the cannabis industry is pending Parliament’s approval, and a patchwork of laws are being used to curb the sale of the substance to minors and prevent users from smoking it in public. The Bhumjaithai has promised to ensure the Bill’s passing if it returns to the government in the coming election.
“We were able to deliver every policy that we promised to our people. It was successful during our term. From here on, there will be a few more new policies that will be very beneficial to the Thai people and Thailand,” said Mr Anutin, who is also a deputy prime minister and public health minister.
Addressing the residents of Nakhon Nayok province, a largely agricultural community, he highlighted campaign plans to support farmers through a contract-farming model and free life insurance for those aged over 60.
The party is also championing a three-year debt moratorium and free solar panels to lower electricity bills as part of its election promises.
“We do not offer discounts, exchanges or giveaways, but we try to support the well-being of the people. Our policies are long-term and not short-term… The important thing is to deliver what one said they would do, and our party has done just that,” Mr Anutin told the crowd that packed the hall.
The 56-year-old, who used to head his family’s firm Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction which is one of the top players in the Thai industry, is known to be a shrewd businessman and a skilled negotiator.
One associate told ST that Mr Anutin “could probably sell ice to an Eskimo”.
Mr Anutin was a senior member of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, a predecessor of the Pheu Thai Party.
In 2012, he joined the Bhumjaithai and became its leader.
Following the 2019 election, where it won about 50 MP seats, the Bhumjaithai, which was once primarily a regional party, has grown in strength and prominence.
On a national level, it leads the public health, transport as well as sports and tourism ministries.
In recent months, dozens of lawmakers have defected from other parties to join the Bhumjaithai, bolstering its already strong support bases in parts of the north-east and the south.
Several analysts said the Bhumjaithai is the party to beat among its former coalition allies, and will likely come in second after the opposition Pheu Thai, whose election campaign is headed by Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
According to some expert estimates and polls, the Bhumjaithai will likely get about 80 seats.
Pheu Thai, banking on the Shinawatra legacy and attractive policies like a 10,000 baht (S$390) one-time handout to every Thai aged 16 and over, could win more than 200 seats.
Given the Bhumjaithai’s prospects in the post-election government, it is no wonder that Mr Anutin’s actions have come under close watch.
In March, he and other key Bhumjaithai leaders were photographed having a meal with PPRP leader Prawit Wongsuwan.
Days later, he gave a birthday hug to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is a key member of the Ruam Thai Sang Chart, also known as the United Thai Nation Party in English.
Naturally, these instances have stirred rumours of pre-election deals among the leaders.
However, Mr Anutin has doused such talk and said he is open to working with various parties in a post-election government.
But there are some partnerships that are off-limits for the staunch monarchist.
“(Anyone) who wants to amend or touch on Article 112, which is the lese-majeste article…would be the party that Bhumjaithai will never work with,” he told ST.
So far, only the opposition Move Forward Party has committed to pushing for the amendment of the law that punishes people who insult the monarchy with jail time.
The Bhumjaithai also enjoys the backing of its former leader Newin Chidchob, who is no longer in politics and now manages Buriram United Football Club which is in the party’s stronghold province of Buriram.
Though no longer holding any formal position in the party, the 64-year-old still wields great influence with his political acumen and connections.
He defected from Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party to help the rival Democrat Party form a new coalition government in 2008.
While bad blood between Mr Newin and Thaksin could prevent a possible Bhumjaithai-Pheu Thai partnership to form a coalition government, it is also likely that veteran politicians like them will be able to put aside personal issues and view coalition negotiations and post-election horse-trading as a business deal, said one analyst.
“It’s about each party’s ability to negotiate once the voting results are out,” said political scientist Pitch Pongsawat, noting that any post-election government combination is possible as long as parties are able to work out a deal.
In Thailand, the prime minister is voted in by the 500 elected MPs and the 250-member military-appointed Senate. The winning candidate must get at least 376 votes.
Mr Anutin is the Bhumjaithai’s sole candidate for prime minister.
Its popularity and relatively congenial relationships across political camps could give him the majority support needed for the premiership, if the opportunity presents itself.
But there is a possibility that Mr Anutin might not be gunning for the top post. He could instead leverage his party’s poll results to score important ministry portfolios or Cabinet positions that might prove more valuable.
Dr Pitch said: “In order to get the role of PM (in a coalition government), one will have to compromise and give other parties key government roles. I believe that the premiership isn’t as important to the Bhumjaithai as it will likely be targeting ministry seats.”
Still, Mr Anutin has given some thought to a possible premiership, telling ST that he believes his dedication to Thailand and the work the Bhumjaithai has done testify to why he would make a good prime minister.
When asked about his first task should he become prime minister, he replied without hesitation: “There is no first thing. We will have to do so many things from day one.”
.This is part of a series on Thailand’s key personalities and political parties. The Straits Times reports from the campaign trail ahead of the May 14 election.