Thai pro-marijuana party in high demand

Bhumjaithai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul poses beside a portrait of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej during an interview with Agence France-Presse in Bangkok on 3 April, 2019. (Romeo Gacad / AFP Photo)

A super-wealthy construction scion who ran a pro-marijuana platform ahead of Thailand’s election has emerged as a highly courted candidate as two main parties need his allegiance – and party seats – after the disputed vote.

The Bhumjaithai Party – meaning "Thai Pride" – is fronted by mega-wealthy Anutin Charnvirakul, an amateur pilot, son of a construction tycoon and unlikely proponent of the medical benefits of marijuana.

Thailand held its first election since a 2014 coup last month, and Bhumjaithai has emerged as a key partner after winning 39 constituency seats in the lower house and finishing fifth in the popular vote.

Their campaign made waves by slapping green marijuana leaves on posters. It also touts deregulation for businesses, promotion of ride-hailing services and a four-day work week.

Thailand became the first country in Southeast Asia to approve cannabis use for medical purposes in December, but Bhumjaithai wants to allow households to grow six plants each in a decriminalised approach loosely based on the United States (US) state of California.

"Marijuana has more positive properties than negative," the 52-year-old said in an interview in his sleek Bangkok office almost two weeks after the 24 March poll.

The office has small airplane models, sculptures, and paintings of Thailand's king and his late father.

Educated at Hofstra University in New York, Anutin maintains in the hallway a collection of original signatures of US presidents dating back to George Washington.

Dressed in a suit and drinking tea, the 52-year-old explained that his policies must be backed by groups looking for support in coalitions.

Pheu Thai or Phalang Pracharath?

"We have to go with the party that will accept our policies," he said, adding that he wants people to have access to the budding industry so big corporations don't swoop in.

The choice is between the junta-backed Phalang Pracharath Party, which has clinched the popular vote, or Pheu Thai, which has formed an alliance with six other anti-junta parties and claims a majority in the lower house.

Analysts have also mentioned Anutin as a possible prime minister in a grand bargain that would include his party's loyalty.

While he declined to specify which way he is leaning before full results are announced on 9 May, Anutin said Bhumjaithai is looking for parties that emphasise unity, a "Thailand first" approach and reverence for the monarchy.

Both of the top two parties remained tight-lipped Wednesday on whether they had approached Anutin for an alliance.

Pheu Thai is linked to self-exiled premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006.

He was also stripped of his royal decorations on Saturday.

The administration of Thaksin's sister Yingluck was toppled in the 2014 power grab led by former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Prayut is now standing for prime minister for Phalang Pracharath.

While a junta-appointed senate gets to cast votes for the top position, analysts say Phalang Pracharath still needs mid-sized parties like Bhumjaithai in the lower house to avoid a legitimacy crisis.

Anutin expressed a general weariness with the bitter political divides that had crippled Thailand for more than a decade.

"I don't want partisans," he said. "I want everyone to join in together and seek the best solution for the country." - AFP