Tycoon Anutin Charnvirakul is causing a splash in Thailand’s general election by campaigning for the legalisation of household marijuana cultivation, a populist policy that could help him become prime minister.
His Bhum Jai Thai party would let households grow up to six cannabis plants, Anutin said in an interview, enabling people to supplement their incomes by earning as much as US$2,200 per kilogram of the crop. That compares with average monthly income per household of about US$850.
"We all know cannabis products are still under-supplied and that demand is growing, and Thailand has the best strands that are widely accepted," 52-year-old Anutin said in Bangkok. "If we could change the mindset that it’s more beneficial than detrimental to the health of the people, and it has value, then why don’t we make it another source of income?"
The party supports the legalisation of recreational cannabis after Thailand last year became the first Southeast Asian nation to allow medical marijuana, and envisages households supplying both markets.
The 24 March general election, after almost five years of military rule, is expected to result in a fragmented 500-seat lower house and a coalition government, possibly with Bhum Jai Thai as a key component. Anutin said the party is targeting 50 to 60 seats in the chamber on a policy platform that calls for deregulation to give Thais more opportunities to bolster incomes.
"We are pretty indispensable if any faction wants to form a coalition," he said.
Anutin is viewed as having good relationships with the biggest players in politics, and his party is seen as a swing vote in parliament.
In 2008, his faction of lawmakers defected from a party linked to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra to shift the balance of power, allowing then-opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to become prime minister.
"Bhum Jai Thai is a medium-sized party, willing to work with any party, whose leader is known to most Thais," said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of ASEAN Community Studies. "If it garners enough seats, Bhum Jai Thai itself might become the compromise central party of a multi-party coalition, with Anutin as prime minister."
Anutin resigned from his position as chairman of steelmaker STP&I Pcl last year, and was formerly president of Sino-Thai Engineering & Construction Pcl. His shareholdings in the two companies are worth a combined US$76 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Thaksin – who now lives in exile – or his allies have won every election since 2001, only to be unseated either by force or the courts, part of a long tussle for power with the military and royalist elite. The main opposition party, Pheu Thai, is linked to Thaksin and expected to be the largest in the lower house.
Junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who seized power in a coup in 2014, is also seeking to return as premier.
"The person who volunteers himself to lead this country must come in with dignity," said Anutin. "The term ‘dignity’ explains itself." - Bloomberg