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Thai election

Thai pro-junta party promises 6% growth, leader says

Uttama shows confidence ahead of elections but keeps door open for coalition

Uttama Savanayana tells the Nikkei Asian Review that his Palang Pracharat Party "would work with parties that ... would [not] damage the country." (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

BANGKOK -- The leader of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party expressed confidence that his camp's plan to nurture agricultural technologies, more varied tourism and a healthy startup ecosystem will stoke economic growth of 6% per year, considerably higher than Thailand's recent GDP figures.

In discussing his party's electoral chances in his first interview as the leader with foreign media, Uttama Savanayana said the PPRP has to fare well enough in elections on March 24 that it is able to bring back junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as prime minister. Uttama told the Nikkei Asian Review the party is open to forming a post-election coalition with any party.

The former minister of industry said he is confident that a PPRP-helmed government can lead the country to sustainable GDP growth of 6% -- well above the 2% to 4% gross domestic product rate that Thailand has averaged over the past five years. Last year's GDP came in at 4.1%.

Uttama, known as the right-hand man of Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak on economic policy, singled out key engines that would power that growth, including investments in targeted industries and the country's strong tourism industry, which currently accounts for 20% of GDP.

As for the targeted sectors, he called them high-tech industries that increase the value of the country's agricultural output.

"We can't deny that Thailand is an agricultural country," he said. "We are an agricultural-rich country, but what we need to do is reform the agricultural sector. We need to reform the entire economy."

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha takes part in a traditional dance with performers at the Khon Kaen railway station on March 13.   © Reuters

Uttama said the current government has already started down this road, particularly in its promotion of the biochemical and bio-agricultural industries.

"We will continue this project," he said, "as it fits the need of the country and it matches our policies."

As for tourism, he said the PPRP plans to promote medical and entertainment tourism. He said these subsectors can help community enterprises to grow.

Uttama said startups would be another engine. He envisions a project to incubate startups that would go on to deliver disruptive technologies. The project would also help cut investment costs and strengthen small and medium-size enterprises.

"Moreover," he said, "we have a clear policy to support international cooperation, including the CPTPP and the RCEP." He said the 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership among 16 Asia and Pacific nations can provide additional growth engines.

Although Uttama insisted that the PPRP will win 130 to 150 seats in the lower house, he said he is open to other parties coming aboard a coalition government.

Uttama says he is open to a coalition but that "Thailand needs a leader like" Prayuth. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

This betrays some uncertainty about how voters will cast their ballots. There is a distinct possibility that no party will gain a majority, a situation that would lead to a coalition being cobbled together.

"It's too early to say which party we would join with to form a government," Uttama said. "We need to see the vote outcome before saying anything.

"We can work with every party, but we also have our criteria. We would work with parties that will not lead to any problem that would damage the country."

Prayuth came to power in May of 2014 after leading a military coup. By that time, Thai politics had been ruptured, with one camp backing billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and the other, some political observers say, paying heed to the middle class at the expense of Thailand's vast rural population.

Thaksin himself had been toppled by a military coup in 2006. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had been the prime minister ahead of Prayuth's move.

The junta camp now believe the previous constitution allowed Thaksin-led parties and the rival Democrats to paralyze the country, politically and economically. The current constitution is designed to prevent the camps from clashing by encouraging smaller political groups to set up their own parties. These incipient parties could play a big role when it comes to forming a coalition government.

The PPRP needs to win at least 126 of the 500 seats in the lower house to nominate Prayuth as prime minister.

Uttama made his comment about not allying with parties that "would damage the country" two days after the Democrats' leader, Abisit Vejjajiva, said he will not support a strategy to return Prayuth to the prime minister's job.

Since Prayuth is the PPRP's only prime ministerial candidate, the party's path to heading a coalition government is narrow. Before Abisit spoke out, the Democrat Party was seen as the most likely PPRP partner.

Other parties that could lend support to the PPRP are the Bhumjaithai Party, Chartthaipattana Party and Chart Pattana Party.

"We are ready to be in the opposition if we lose in the election," Uttama said. "However, I don't think that we will lose."

Critics and pro-democracy parties have criticized the PPRP for positioning Prayuth to keep his prime ministership, saying such a result could lead to dictatorial power.

Uttama scoffed at this. "Thailand needs a leader like Gen. Prayuth," he said. "We need the right leader at the right time."

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