| NAKHON PHANOM, Thailand
NAKHON PHANOM, Thailand Private-sector reforms, corporate tax cuts, wage increases and a big boost in domestic consumption could be on the cards for Thailand if Yingluck Shinawatra becomes the country's first female prime minister after the July 3 general election.
Offering a window into her Puea Thai Party's economic policies, the sister of fugitive tycoon and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra said she would allow the baht currency to trade freely while boosting Thailand's infrastructure and competitiveness to lure foreign tourists and investors.
In an interview with Reuters during a whistle-stop tour of her party's rural northeast strongholds, the telegenic, 43-year-old businesswoman said reviving the twice-elected Thaksin's populist policies would increase consumption without hurting businesses or emptying state coffers.
"This is the business way to handle things, it's not just about reducing costs and improving budgets -- we just find money in a different way," said Yingluck, a political novice who has emerged as the frontrunner for the premiership after just two weeks of campaigning.
"If you ask companies to increase minimum wages or starting salaries for graduates, they share the burden, so we must reduce corporate tax from 30 to 23 percent, then 20."
Puea Thai is promising to raise the daily minimum wage to 300 baht ($410) from 159-221 baht and to give university graduates a starting salary of 15,000 baht a month.
"This system will help everyone. Consumption will go up, people can buy more and we can collect tax back from that, and that's the way we boost income," Yingluck said.
Her manner evokes that of the 61-year-old Thaksin, a self-styled "CEO premier" with a business-like approach to running the economy but who is still seen as a hero by the urban and rural working classes for policies such as cheap healthcare and easy credit for rural villages.
Thaksin was overthrown by the military in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai but is still the guiding force behind Puea Thai.
Most polls show Yingluck performing well against the Democrat Party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and suggest the opposition will grab the largest number of the 500 available seats.
But many independent analysts doubt either party will secure a majority, opening the way for both sides to wheel and deal with smaller parties to form a coalition.
Kasem Prunratanamala, head of research at CIMB Securities (Thailand) Co Ltd, saw few substantive policy differences between Yingluck and Abhisit but said investors were focused on the risk of unrest and the possibility of another coup if the opposition wins.
"The market's main concern is if Puea Thai party wins the majority it might attract the military to get involved," Kasem said. "But the current political situation should not have much impact on the market except if there is a coup."
The baht rose 11 percent against the dollar last year to a 14-year high and although it has slipped back marginally this year, some industrialists complain the increase has hurt their competitiveness in export markets.
However, Yingluck said a Puea Thai government would not try to hold the currency down artificially. "We will leave the baht at the market value and not interfere," she said.
She benefits from strong support from Thailand's red-shirt anti-government movement of the rural and urban poor who mostly back her brother and took to Bangkok's streets last year in a protest that ended in a bloody army crackdown and Thailand's worst political violence in decades, with 91 people killed.
The red shirts have designated dozens of communities across the northeast as "Red Shirt Villages," complete with red signs posted at the entrance with Thaksin's smiling image, a development that could make it easier for the movement to mobilize or turn out voters.
Yingluck did not comment on the red villages. But Nattawut Saikua, a veteran red-shirt leader and Puea Thai Party candidate, said her party was watching the rise of the villages in Udon Thani and neighboring Khon Kaen province, but had not decided whether to endorse the idea.
Yingluck, the head of property dveloper SC Asset Corp, appeared more self-assured on policy than at the start of the campaign.
Asked if the government should retain its controlling stakes in companies such as Thai Airways International and Krung Thai Bank, she said state-controlled firms were not dynamic.
She said her party's proposal to buy unmilled rice from farmers at 15,000 baht per tonne of paddy would benefit farmers without hurting exporters or Thailand's position as the world's biggest shipper of the grain.
Thaksin's supporters fear the Puea Thai Party could suffer the same fate as his two previous ruling parties, which were dissolved after intervention by the military in 2006 and a Supreme Court ruling in 2008.
But Yingluck said she believed there was too much at stake for anyone to attempt to block Puea Thai from forming a government if it won the most votes. "We're quite concerned, but I don't think it can be done," she said.
Yingluck rejected claims by opponents that Thaksin, who has called her his "clone," was directing her every move and denied a proposed general amnesty was a ploy to bring her brother home without serving a two-year prison term for graft.
The amnesty, she said, would help unite Thailand and bring justice to anyone treated unfairly, including the military.
"We have to reinstall democracy first," she said. "The rule of law or due process hasn't been followed, so we have to be fair to everyone, with one standard... we would not be doing this just for one person."
An anti-Thaksin group said it would start gathering signatures against Yingluck if she sought a pardon for Thaksin in connection with an asset concealment case in which he was found guilty by the courts in 2010.
(Additional reporting by Arada Kultawanich; Editing by Alan Raybould and Nick Macfie)