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Thai property mogul Srettha Thavisin's unlikely rise to prime minister

Published 08/22/2023, 06:08 AM
Updated 08/22/2023, 08:52 AM
© Reuters. Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate, Srettha Thavisin who is the sole candidate nominated for a parliamentary vote, reacts while speaking to media at the party headquarters, in Bangkok, Thailand, August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa
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By Devjyot Ghoshal and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) -Srettha Thavisin, until recently chief of one of Thailand's biggest real estate developers, was on Tuesday voted in as prime minister at the head of an unlikely alliance of populists and pro-military parties after weeks of post-election deadlock.

Srettha, 61, won a vote in parliament to become premier hours after the founder of his populist Pheu Thai Party, Thaksin Shinawatra, made a dramatic return to Thailand after 15 years of self-exile and was taken straight to jail.

"It is an honour to be elected prime minister," Srettha told reporters after the vote. "I would like to thank all the Thai people.

"...I'll do my best," a beaming Srettha said, before he was mobbed by television cameras. He declined to answer questions ahead of royal confirmation of his election.

Tuesday's vote was passed with the support of pro-military members of parliament who had blocked the progressive Move Forward Party, which won a May election, from power.

Instead, the conservative establishment sees Srettha and his Pheu Thai, which came second in the election, as more palatable. The party has struck a pact with old enemies, now in pro-military parties, to form a government in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

When the suave businessman with no administrative experience was unveiled as a Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate, the party emphasised his business acumen and, by extension, his ability to manage an economy making a tentative recovery from the COVID pandemic.

From a family with deep connections in the business elite, Srettha started his career at the Thailand arm of Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) after studying for economics and management degrees in the United States.

In 1990, along with some cousins, he founded a company that went on to become property developer Sansiri, eventually growing it into one of Thailand's largest property firms.

In 2022, Bangkok-listed Sansiri posted revenue of 34.9 billion baht ($1.01 billion) and 4.2 billion baht in net profit. Shares in the developer rose more than 8% in Bangkok on Tuesday, heading for their best session in nearly seven months.

This month, political gadfly Chuwit Kamolvisit alleged that Srettha, while in charge of Sansiri, was involved in wrongdoing in two land deals. Both Sansiri and Srettha denied that.

'OUTSIDER'

A devoted fan of English soccer club Liverpool who peppers his social media accounts with pictures of dogs, Srettha literally looms over his party colleagues, at a height of six feet, three inches (1.92 m).

His transition from business to the prime minister's office mirrors that of Thaksin, who made his fortune in telecommunications before becoming what he called the "CEO prime minister".

The military ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup and a government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014.

For Srettha, being a political neophyte has benefits but also possible costs, analysts and people who know him say.

A party colleague and two business associates described Srettha as a straight talker who won't be afraid to speak his mind.

"He hasn't really adapted to become a politician," one of the business associates said. "So many politicians don't feel comfortable around him, they're afraid they can't control or influence him."

While he might be unencumbered by old political obligations, at the same time he lacks a political support base both within the party and the broader public.

This has led to questions about to what extent Srettha can be his own man, especially with the looming figure of Thaksin now back from self-exile and, to some extent anyway, back on the scene.

© Reuters. Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate, Srettha Thavisin who is the sole candidate nominated for a parliamentary vote, reacts while speaking to media at the party headquarters, in Bangkok, Thailand, August 22, 2023. REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

"Srettha is a political outsider," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

"His business connection and experience may help his management style and boost economic policies but there is a question whether he is totally independent of Thaksin."

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