BANGKOK: Thailand's health minister who championed the legalisation of cannabis is hoping the reform will help deliver gains in next month's election, with expectations he could emerge as a power broker who can stitch together a coalition government.
Anutin Charnvirakul, 56, is confident his Bhumjaithai Party will be part of the next government after an election that is shaping up to be a tight contest between pro-military conservatives and their populist opponents.
The economy is the main election issue with signs of recovery despite inflation and a global slowdown, but last year's legalisation of cannabis has brought Anutin and his party more attention, both positive and negative, in the run-up to the May 14 vote.
"We'ill win more seats than last time, for sure. Our goal is to get parliamentary seats in the three digits in this election because of what we've done," Anutin, a deputy prime minister and health minister, told Reuters in an interview.
In the last election in 2019, when electoral rules favoured small and medium-size parties, Bhumjaithai, or Proud to be Thai, won 51 seats in the 500-member parliament, becoming a junior partner in a coalition dominated by pro-military parties.
This time, new election rules favour bigger parties, and Bhumjaithai has strengthened its slate of candidates to compete with larger opponents.
Opposition parties, including the Pheu Thai Party loyal to former telecoms tycoon and ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, have criticised Bhumjaithai and the ruling coalition for what they see as the rushed and loosely regulated decriminalisation of cannabis.
But Anutin, a former chairman of one of Thailand's largest construction companies, said opening up the marijuana business was a proven vote winner.
"Last time, Bhumjaithai Party won millions of votes from people who believed in the benefits of marijuana," he said.
Two opinions polls last month showed Bhumjaithai was the most popular party in the ruling alliance but behind the favourite, the Pheu Thai opposition party that Thaksin's daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, hopes to lead to victory.
Political scientist Wanwichit Boonprong of Rangsit University said Anutin could emerge as a king-maker because of his party's popularity and his relationships across the political divide.
"Bhumjaithai will likely gain the most seats among the parties in the government coalition," Wanwichit said, predicting it could win more than 70, including from rural strongholds in the lower northeast.
The party has promised debt moratoriums on small loans and improvements to the health system. Anutin said he was open to working with any party and would be prepared to be prime minister if the opportunity arose.
"I am younger, more fresh and I understand politics in a democratic system," he said.
But the staunch monarchist draws the line at any suggestion of amending a lese majeste law.
A youth-led protest movement that emerged in late 2020 to oppose military involvement in politics called for changing the law that protects the monarchy, which punishes perceived royal insult with up to 15 years in jail.
Some small parties have suggested amending it and Pheu Thai has raised the possibility of discussing it in parliament.
But for Anutin the monarchy is sacrosanct.
"Protecting the monarchy is an inspiration for the party," Anutin said.