Campaigning for junta-ruled Thailand’s first election since the 2014 coup has kicked into high gear two weeks ahead of the vote, as pro-democracy contenders spar over the nitty-gritty of rival economic policies and the title of being the furthest removed from the current military rulers. The one issue on most commentators’ lips, however, did not feature in the intensified hustings – last week’s dissolution of a party linked to the powerful Shinawatra clan over its abortive pick of King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s sister as a prime ministerial candidate. In a live debate among party leaders on Sunday, the focus was on how the parties planned to steer Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy after the March 24 vote. Young lives destroyed, overcrowded prisons: the hidden cost of Thailand’s cheap meth Leaders sought to convince voters that their respective economic platforms – some unveiled over the weekend – were the best placed to restore an economy they said had underperformed during the five-year rule of junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha. The pro-military Palang Pracharat Party that is seeking to keep Prayuth as prime minister did not have a representative at the debate, despite being invited. When quizzed over why voters should support the Pheu Thai party – the country’s biggest political party, which is backed by the polarising exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – its leader Sudarat Keyuraphan said the outfit’s track record spoke for itself. Pheu Thai was in power from 2011 to 2014, under the leadership of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Yingluck joined her brother in self-exile after Prayuth seized the country’s reins from her in a coup. Parties linked to the Shinawatras have won six elections since 2001, but each victory has been mired in stand-offs as the country’s establishment elite revile the clan. “We don’t really focus on any one individual,” Sudarat said in response to a question about Thaksin’s “tarnished” image in the country – one of the charges against the ex-premier was that he heavily bought votes during his 2001-2006 stint as premier. We are the first party that focuses on policy rather than attacking others or buying votes Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai Party “We are the first party that focuses on policy rather than attacking others or buying votes,” she said. “Each time we are the government the economy has grown because we deal with it from the grass roots, not at the top of the pyramid.” Thailand delays rice bill due to farmers’ objections. Will it open the door for the Shinawatras? Mingkwan Sangsuwan, leader of the smaller New Economy party, said the junta had largely “failed in the economy” during its five-year tenure. “We have given them enough time,” he said. The New Economy Party and Pheu Thai are among the parties that say there is an urgent need to tackle the country’s rising public and household debt levels. Most parties advocate some form of permanent government transfer to the rural poor to alleviate household debt. Said Seripisut Temiyavet, a former police general who leads the Thai Liberal Party: “We have laws that favour the capitalists and thus people are poorer because of our politics. We have to change that in the election and push for politics that benefit the people.” MILITARY REFORM Also fiercely debated was the role the military should play in a post-election Thailand. There was consensus on the need for reform so that the military, responsible for 12 successful coups since the end of absolute monarchic rule in 1932, no longer intervenes in politics. “Many people say the military is the country’s problem and I agree with that,” said Seripisut, who underwent military training. In recent weeks he has exchanged harsh words with influential army chief Apirat Kongsompong over an incident where military personnel had tailed Seripisut during the hustings. Junta up in arms over plan to cut military outlay – as neighbours like Singapore and Indonesia spend more “When they take over power, as in a coup, the military leaves people in debt but they take the budget to buy tanks and submarines, claiming World War III is coming,” said the tough-talking former police chief. “They order the military officers to follow me and now the whole army is against me.” Sudarat, the Thaksin ally, was not as strident in her views about the military. Many people say the military is the country’s problem and I agree with that Seripisut Temiyavet, Thai Liberal Party “We admire a professional military that supports the country … but we despise a military that stages coups,” she said. The politicians also locked horns over whether they would form a coalition government with the pro-military Palang Pracharat. Openly mooting a tie-up with Palang Pracharat is likely to alienate large swathes of the nearly 8 million first-time, millennial voters who condemn Prayuth’s administration. Amid speculation that the Democrat Party led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is mulling forming a post-election alliance with the pro-junta party, the party leader offered a hedged position. “It depends on whether or not the Palang Pracharat can accept the condition that I set. If they want to prolong the junta power then I won’t accept them,” he said. Abhisit’s party briefly formed a minority government in the 2000s, but never won an election outright. In a social media post on Sunday, he offered a firmer position on an alliance with the junta. From Pattaya with love: forget sex trainers, meet the real Russians of Thailand’s party town “I will definitely not support General Prayuth,” he said in a 33-second video clip. “After five years under General Prayuth’s leadership, the economy is in poor shape and the country has suffered badly.” The fate of the banned Thai Raksa Chart Party was not discussed by any of the party leaders. As the ban was instituted by the Constitutional Court, the country’s top judicial body, questioning the decision publicly may spell legal trouble for dissenters. On Saturday, nine alumni of the dissolved party led by one-time Shinawatra lieutenant Chaturon Chaisang said they would hold four rallies around the country canvassing voters to support “pro-democracy” parties.