Thailand's No. 1 deadbeat eyes top job
Prachai Leophairatana's energy giant became Southeast Asia's biggest debtor in the late 1990s. On Dec. 23, he hopes to become Thailand's next prime minister.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Thailand's Prachai Leophairatana was the undisputed bad boy of the Asian financial crisis. When the baht dove in 1997, his debt soared, transforming the company he founded, Thai Petrochemical Industries, into Southeast Asia's biggest corporate deadbeat when it defaulted on $4.2 billion in loans to Thai and foreign banks. Creditors, led by Bangkok Bank, united to oust Prachai from the company's board and management, and the government eventually intervened to sell the insolvent firm.
But Prachai is nothing if not tenacious. Ten years and more than 60 court cases later, he still hasn't thrown in the towel. Instead, he has thrown his hat in the ring.
Prachai's newest ambition is to become Prime Minister. On Dec. 23, Thailand will hold its first national election since a 2006 bloodless coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I am the anti-Thaksin," Prachai proclaims over a bowl of miso soup at a swank Japanese restaurant in Bangkok. And anti-Thaksin he was, quietly lending support to street protests against the Prime Minister last year because he believes Thaksin conspired with Thai banks to steal his company, a charge Thaksin has denied. In fact, Prachai sees conspiracies everywhere. He claims all of Thailand's commercial banks are controlled by Singapore and that the current military-appointed government is taking money from Thaksin to do a bad job so the public will want Thaksin back.
Many voters do. Polls show that the People Power Party, which has vowed to rescue Thaksin from exile in London and quash corruption charges against him, is in the lead. But the next government will most likely be a coalition, and Prachai's Matchima (Middle Path) Party is expected to win enough seats to make him a player in the wheeling and dealing.
Observers say Prachai, who still has business interests in cement, rice, textiles, and insurance, has next to no chance of becoming Prime Minister. His bid took another blow in December, when Bangkok's Criminal Court convicted him of share manipulation during an IPO in 2003 and sentenced him to three years in jail. Prachai is out on appeal.
In the meantime he's running hard, promising to make all social services, including university education, free. He whips out charts to show how he'll pay for it all, but his financial track record has left most economists scoffing. Still, other parties have jumped on the populist bandwagon, prompting Prachai to see another conspiracy. "They've all stolen my policies," he says. "In that respect, I've won already."