The Problem with Tycoons in Thai Politics

What hides behind some political parties contesting for power in the name of democracy, is an authoritarian reality behind closed doors. Those parties in question are ones with a direct owner or investor, and as we have seen in Thailand’s political landscape it has always been big business tycoons. Perhaps there are successful use cases out there, but in Thailand it has always ended in drastic disappointments.

One prominent figure who does not need any introduction is none other than former Prime Minister and current fugitive-on-the-run Thaksin Shinawatra. The former leader of Thailand between 2001-2006 rose to power amid a financial crisis when the previous government failed to find a solution to it. Thaksin’s opportunistic mindset immediately capitalized on this, and he managed to win the Thai people’s heart.

Thaksin founded the Thai Rak Thai party while he was in power where he compiled numerous corruption cases.

There is no denying that Thaksin did in fact produce some successful policies such as the 30-baht healthcare scheme, but looking back it is safe to say that he came to power mostly for himself. Thaksin Shinawatra owned a telecommunications company (Shin Corp), and his wealth grew from a monopolistic contract with the state to solely provide services to the Thai people with ridiculous prices.

Towards the end of his premiership, Thaksin’s wealth tripled and he sold the remaining shares of Shin Corp without spending a dime on capital gains tax after adjusting the laws just one day prior to the sell-off.

After its dissolution, its successor the Pheu Thai party attempted to submit an Amnesty Bill to whitewash his political crimes. This goes to show that a democratically elected government is capable of serving authoritarian agendas with ease.

He was also accountable for several counts of abuse of power such as the infamous Ratchada land deal where he bought state-owned land at a knock-off price through manipulating regulations. Successful businessmen are good at maximizing profits, which is why they are appealing to voters when the economy is disappointing the majority. It gets dangerous when these individuals prefer maximizing their own profits rather than the collective society.

Thaksin’s example is not a one-off scenario, another prominent business tycoon who continues to play an important role in Thai politics is Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader and founder of Bhumjaithai Party. Mr. Anutin owns one of the country’s biggest construction companies called Sino-Thai Engineering and Construction PCL.

Mr. Anutin is one of those cunning politicians without a spine. The media will often find him refraining from commenting positively or negatively about anyone, for the sake of keeping all personal opportunities opened. The Bhumjaithai party will never lead Thailand because it lacks a standing ground, but that flexibility has allowed the party to avoid being an opposition in any government.

The construction company’s lifeline does not deal with houses or hotels, Sino-Thai is often the breadwinner for many of the government’s mega-projects. For example, the Suvarnabhumi Airport under Thaksin, the new parliament and a motorway under the current government are projects fetched by Mr. Anutin.

The Bhumjaithai party’s capacity to win 15-25 seats in parliament becomes a bargaining chip when competition between the bigger parties become stiff. We don’t need to guess what he may ask for in return.

If the party lacks a standing ground and subjected to change its position given what offers are laid on the table, this is again another overpowering authoritarian grip camouflaged in the shadows of democracy. The success of the Bhumjaithai party has never been reflected through their parliamentarian efforts, but by the stability of the Sino-Thai company.

Why is this an important element to consider for the Thai people in this next election? Thailand has a new tycoon-turned-politician on the block and his name is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Mr. Thanathorn founded the Future Forward party in 2018, and his family owns a billion-dollar auto parts company called Thai Summit.

Mr. Thanathorn’s political tactics are no different from Mr. Thaksin, creating an opportunity for himself amid a time of crisis. At a time when it is popular to condemn the military government, Thanathorn presses forward with policies aiming to cut military power and expenditure which has received viral support. He also intends to call it quits on Thailand’s military conscriptions.

There are some indications which could imply that the tycoon’s political life cycle will continue. The wealth of the Juangroongruangkit family was built on the Thai Summit Group which is one of Thailand’s biggest auto-parts manufacturer. Therefore, policies related to strengthening and developing Thailand’s transportation infrastructure will have a direct impact on Thai Summit Group.

 Future Forward’s key policy to solve and improve transportation is through rail expansion in all regions of Thailand, but Thais are fully aware of what the real problem is.

There are too many cars in Thailand (Bangkok in particular), and the only thing previous governments have done was to promote the purchase of vehicles while poorly improving public transportation. Remind ourselves who owns a giant auto parts company.

This is all speculation, but what if it was in fact the best for the country to propose policies and tax schemes that can curb vehicle registrations. In 2017, Kasikorn Research Center’s report made front-page headlines revealing that Thailand’s traffic has costed the economy 11 billion baht in opportunity costs, or approximately 60 million baht a day. Did Mr. Thanathorn not consider this at all? What if this was the way out to remove Bangkok’s status as the country with the worst traffic congestion and our pollution problems? Would he do it?

The demise of previous tycoon-turned-politicians was to wind up putting the family business interests over the country’s interests. Mr. Thanathorn’s reluctance to touch base on solutions to Thailand’s transportation system towards the last corner before election could be a worrying hint. Time will tell.