Thai telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra is emerging as the only serious challenger to Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and his Democrat Party in national elections due to be held before the end of the year. With a new party named Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), the 51-year-old is being touted as Thailand's savior, but not everyone is listening. In an interview with TIME Bangkok correspondent David Liebhold and reporter Robert Horn, Thaksin outlines his plan to clean up the government and lift the country out of its economic crisis.
TIME: What made you decide to come back to politics?
Thaksin: I happen to be fortunate, I've had success in business. So it's my duty as a Thai to help the country, and to make some sacrifices. Actually, I never really left. I ran for the Constitution Drafting Assembly, which was a reform vehicle, but I was blocked by my political opponents. So then I set up my own party. I am a very strong advocate of political reform.
TIME: Are you talking about things like corruption?
TIME: How would you root it out?
Thaksin: The behavior of the leaders is very important. They must not allow corruption, and not protect those who are corrupt, even if the wrongdoers are ministers from their own party. If after the election Chuan is still the Prime Minister, he can't go on in the same way, putting politics before the interests of the people. I will definitely put the interests of the people first. This is the new Thai politics. When people join our party they have to accept new ideas and new thinking. If they are not clean, we will not take them in. If they serve their constituency well and ... they are good legislators, that's O.K., but we will never appoint them as ministers.
TIME: Thailand's parliament is dominated by businessmen. Is it necessary for Thai politicians to be businessmen, to have money?
Thaksin: Not really. You don't have to be rich. Chuan is a good example of that. But you should not seek your fortune through politics, especially now that Thailand is in a financial crisis. We need all Thais to make sacrifices.
TIME: The crisis isn't over yet?
Thaksin: I think we've reached the bottom and we're seeing some kind of recovery. We hope it will be sustainable, but I doubt it. Some sectors are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, but most people aren't seeing the light yet. We need new ideas, not just from me, but from my whole team who will be able to bring in new ideas.
TIME: What are some of these new ideas?
Thaksin: So much needs to be done. I have to fight three wars: the war on poverty; the war on corruption; and the war on drugs. Plus, we need economic restructuring. We're concentrating our time and resources on debt restructuring, which has become debt rescheduling, without having a master plan for the economy. We need to create more entrepreneurs. Our party is the first to promote SMEs [small and medium enterprises], which I see as an engine of growth for the economy.
TIME: Are you going to win?
Thaksin: Well, if my new ideas can be heard by the people all over the country ... but I don't know, I'll try my best.