BANGKOK -- The de facto leader of Thailand's main opposition Pheu Thai Party has pledged to join forces with all groups that stand against the ruling junta in the country's long-awaited general election on March 24.
"We will not support the National Council for Peace and Order to remain in power," said Sudarat Keyuraphan in an exclusive interview with Nikkei Asian Review. The NCPO is the military junta that has ruled Thailand since 2014.
"We are ready to work with [any] party that does not support Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha," she added.
Sudarat served as health minister and later agriculture minister under Pheu Thai founder Thaksin Shinawatra in the early and mid-2000s. She is considered the party's main candidate for the premiership. Under the current constitution, parties can field up to three prime ministerial candidates.
The Election Commission announced the date for Thailand's lower house election last Wednesday. This will be the first such vote since 2011, as the 2014 poll was nullified and led to the coup d'etat that brought the junta to power.
The long-awaited election will supposedly return the country to democracy after nearly five years of military rule. However, junta supporters and certain cabinet members have established the Palang Pracharat Party, which if elected would allow the current government to retain power as an elected civilian regime.
"If people think that they cannot stand the current government anymore, there is only way out," Sudarat said. "That is to vote for us to achieve a landslide victory."
A party or coalition must secure both a lower-house majority and the prime minister's position to form a stable government.
But under the new constitution, a majority of the combined 750 members in the lower and upper houses is required to elect the prime minister.
As 244 of the 250 upper house members will be nominated by the junta, with the other six reserved for the military and police chiefs, an anti-junta bloc would need 376 of 500 lower house seats to ensure their candidate took power.
"This time, people must vote not for choosing who to govern, but for getting out of problems the current government has created over four years," she added.
Pheu Thai's stronghold lies in the less-developed agricultural regions in the north. "In the past four or five years, Thai people have suffered more. Farmers and the lower-middle class have earned less," Sudarat said. "People miss us, because we made the price of agricultural products higher when we were in government."
The party's policy of aiding farmers has often been criticized as populist.
Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra was elected prime minister in 2011 after pledging the government would buy rice at 100% above market prices. The scheme later formed the basis of her conviction for dereliction of duty. Yingluck fled the country shortly before she was sentenced to prison in absentia.
In the party's defense, Sudarat insisted it had never given away money. "Every scheme that we implemented aimed to generate new income or new assets."
"We encourage farmers to change or improve their products by providing the necessary capital to villagers and letting them work on it until they achieved success," she said, adding that her vision was to turn the country into a hub of quality food for the whole world.
She also criticized the junta's infrastructure projects. "They do not understand the way to do it right," she said. "We will continue, but we will ask investors what they really want. We will then adjust projects to [move in] the right direction," she added, emphasizing a desire to make development work for both foreign investors and local enterprises.
Last October, Pheu Thai elected Viroj Pao-in, a police lieutenant-general, as its leader. In what was seen as a strategic move, Sudarat was not given an important position at that point, as the party was facing threats of dissolution. The junta claimed it was under the direct influence of Thaksin, who now lives in exile.
Thai law prohibits foreign residents from controlling political parties. Had Pheu Thai been dissolved, many of its executives would likely have been banned from politics for a number of years.
"Many policies and many principles of thoughts from Dr. Thaksin have become the philosophy of the party and the method of how the party works," she said. "But he cannot manage the party, as the constitution says."
"We will continue the same philosophy and principles, and we will make Thai people strong and farmers strong by enhancing their purchasing power."