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Thaksin Shinawatra says Thai election ‘not free and fair’

Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire and populist politician who has dominated Thai politics for two decades, has declared the country’s election “not free and fair”, a day after a pro-military party performed better than expected in a landmark national vote.

Thailand’s election on Sunday should have been “easily” won by opposition parties but was tarnished by rigging and “very strange” delays in reporting results, Mr Thaksin told the Financial Times in an interview.

The country’s first vote since a 2014 military coup has been marred by growing allegations of irregularities that many Thais believe will boost the chances of a coalition being formed with Prayuth Chan-ocha, the military dictator, as prime minister.

“The election is not free and fair, and much wrongdoing has been reported,” Mr Thaksin said, citing Thai media reports of vote buying, unexplained discrepancies between voters registered and votes cast, and delay in reporting official results on Sunday. “It must be a government from a free and fair election to be respected by the international community,” he added.

Mr Thaksin said the conduct of the vote could give pause to the EU, which suspended talks on a free trade agreement with Thailand after the coup but planned to reopen them with a democratically elected government.

“If it’s not free and fair, they [might] hold back the FTA, and this is not good for Thailand,” he said.

Preliminary and partial results show that Pheu Thai, the main party backed by Mr Thaksin, will emerge as the largest in Thailand’s lower house after the vote, with 137 seats projected as of Monday. However, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party (PPRP) is in second place and best positioned to build a coalition because it can count on the support of 250 senators handpicked by the military, who will help elect the next prime minister.

“They will probably make Pheu Thai number two,” Mr Thaksin said, referring to Thailand’s military rulers. “They will have to make it number two, to justify themselves as a very legitimate government.”

Mr Thaksin, who travels between Hong Kong, London and Dubai, described himself as a ‘former prime minister and a Thai who still loves his country’ © Berton Chang/FT

The Chinese-Thai tycoon, who has lived in voluntary exile since fleeing corruption charges in 2008, spoke to the FT in Hong Kong, three days after the wedding of his youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra in the city.

The wedding’s highest-profile guest was Ubolratana Rajakanya, the older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose shortlived tenure as prime ministerial candidate of Thai Raksa Chart, another pro-Thaksin party, briefly electrified the election last month.

Mr Thaksin — perhaps mindful of Thailand’s strict royal insult laws — declined to answer any questions about Ms Ubolratana, whose candidacy was seen in Thailand as a strategic blunder by the Thaksin camp.

The king quashed his younger sister’s candidacy and Thai Raksa Chart was ordered to disband. Putting aside questions over the credibility of the election results, some analysts believe the results showed a weakening of popular support for “Thaksinism”.

The 69-year-old businessman-politician and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, another former prime minister, are reviled by Bangkok’s royalist elite, who see them as populists who squandered billions on spending schemes for the poor during their premierships. But the Shinawatras retain a loyal mass following in Thailand’s east and north.

Mr Thaksin, who described himself as an “observer”, rather than a participant, in Thai politics, would not be drawn on the next political move of Pheu Thai, which said on Monday it had opened talks with other parties to try and form a coalition.

However, he said the party and others in the anti-junta camp, including the new Future Forward, should have won 300 seats between them in Sunday’s vote. Pheu Thai alone, he said, should have won 180 to 190. “Pheu Thai should have won easily according to the polling, which is very systematic.”

He declined to say how many seats he thought the party would end up winning when final results are announced. “I don’t know; it will depend on how they manipulate it,” he said. “They are not finished manipulating yet.”

Mr Thaksin, who travels between Hong Kong, London and Dubai, described himself as a “former prime minister and a Thai who still loves his country”.

He said Thailand’s limits on freedom of expression such as a computer crime act used to clamp down on criticism of the junta, were holding back the country’s economy and making it a “backward” place in an age of digital disruption — an opinion shared by some critical economic analysts.

“The global economy is facing headwinds now, and the Thai economy needs to be restructured, the way we do business now,” said Mr Thaksin. “The tsunami of technology is moving in, and we aren’t well prepared yet.”

Follow John Reed on Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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