By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat
BANGKOK (Reuters) - An election could be a year away in army-ruled Thailand, but Anutin Charnvirakul is already eyeing a role as a potential kingmaker with ties across the traditional political divide and to the politicised generals.
A businessman and amateur pilot whose party came third in the last election, Anutin, 51, has seen his political profile rise as parties start to map out a strategy for an election the junta has promised for the end of next year.
Pundits have tipped Anutin as a possible prime minister in a coalition government made more likely by a new voting system expected to weaken the colour-coded parties behind more than a decade of turmoil leading to a 2014 coup.
"I think it is better to be a kingmaker in this situation rather than an opportunistic prime minister," Anutin told Reuters in a recent interview.
The main support for Anutin's Bhumjaithai party is among farming communities in the lower northeast and he reckoned it could increase its share of seats to 50 out of 500 at the next election, from 34 in the last vote in 2011.
"I have never been closer to the doorstep of Government House," he said, referring to the official prime ministerial offices.
Anutin said he had a good personal relationship with both major parties - a rarity in polarised Thailand, where the army took power in a 2014 coup in the name of ending bloody protests.
Anutin was once a senior official in the party led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose "red" populist movement has strong support in the north and among the poor.
It has won every election since 2001 and it was a government led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, that was ousted in the most recent coup.
TIES TO BOTH SIDES
But Anutin also has links to Thaksin's rivals, led by the "yellow" Democrat Party which draws support from the south and particularly from Bangkok's elite. Anutin's father - Bhumjaithai's founder - served in the last Democrat government.
"There are major ideological differences between political groups and I no longer want to take sides," Anutin said.
"The bottom line is, the country should not return to turmoil plagued by street demonstrations between different camps."
Anutin was identified in 2009 as a close associate of Thailand's then crown prince, who is now King Maha Vajiralongkorn, according to a U.S. embassy cable published by Wikileaks.
Thailand's king plays a powerful role behind the scenes. Anutin did not comment on any relationship.
The Democrat Party's deputy leader, Ong-art Klampaiboon, said it was too early to comment on what might happen at the election. Former deputy prime minister Phongthep Thepkanjana of the Shinawatra-linked Pheu Thai Party shared a similar view.
Suspicions are rife that junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, or another military-backed candidate, will seek to become prime minister after elections. A new constitution guarantees the army a lasting say.
Anutin is the former chairman of Sino-Thai Engineering & Construction Pcl, Thailand's third biggest building firm, which was founded by his father.
His fortune has helped finance his political ambitions as well as his hobbies of flying light aircraft and collecting antique tea sets and Buddha statues.
(Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Matthew Tostevin)