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Snap Insight: Thaksin’s return from exile could shape Thai politics under Pheu Thai government

BANGKOK: Former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra stepped on Thai soil for the first time in 15 years after his plane touched down at Bangkok’s private jet terminal on Tuesday (Aug 22), marking a historic moment for the country’s politics since he was ousted in a 2006 coup and accused of corruption and abuse of power.

The 74-year-old billionaire had expressed his wish to return home more than a dozen times. When he finally did so on Tuesday morning, his arrival strikingly coincided with an imminent parliamentary vote for a new prime minister, adding a sense of dramatic timing to his homecoming.

Clad in a blue suit and a red tie, the former leader was all smiles when he emerged from the terminal building, waving to his supporters and the media before laying a flower garland in front of a picture of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida to show his respect.

Political observers say the timing of Thaksin’s return is closely linked to politics – particularly the selection of a new prime minister scheduled to take place later in the day. Some have suggested that Thaksin-backed party Pheu Thai has secured a backroom deal with its coalition partners to ensure it gets to lead the next government and provide security for Thaksin.

“Thaksin’s homecoming this time reflects significant confidence,” Dr Yuthaporn Isarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, told local news outlet Thai PBS on Tuesday.

He added that Thaksin’s presence in Thailand will also boost support for Pheu Thai, which faces a crisis of faith after joining forces with the old ruling camp to secure power. “If Thaksin hadn’t come back today, the situation could be worrisome for Pheu Thai,” Dr Yuthaporn said.

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THAKSIN FACES EIGHT YEARS IN PRISON

Shortly after his touchdown, Thaksin was taken by police to the Supreme Court and ordered to serve eight years in prison for various convictions in absentia.

Sitthi Sutivong, deputy director-general of the Department of Corrections, said in a press conference that Thaksin has medical conditions that require continued treatment by specialists. 

While Thaksin is currently remanded alone in the medical wing at Bangkok Remand Prison, his advanced age means he may be eligible to request parole after partially serving his sentence. Moreover, his family can also ask for a royal pardon.

Thaksin has long been a powerful political figure in Thai society. His government was toppled by a military coup in 2006, resulting in his self-imposed exile.

In 2008, he returned to Thailand briefly before fleeing overseas in the same year, after failing to appear in court for a corruption case.

The former prime minister has close ties with Pheu Thai, which is a reincarnation of his old party Thai Rak Thai. Its prime ministerial candidate Srettha Thavisin is touted to become Thailand’s 30th prime minister, given support from Pheu Thai’s coalition partners which observers believe can command the military-controlled Senate.

“From the looks of it, it seems that things are moving in the direction that Pheu Thai would like,” Erik Martinez Kuhonta, an associate professor from the Department of Political Science, McGill University, told CNA on Asia First on Tuesday. 

“The vote that is going to take place today, in which the two chambers of parliament will try to see if a new prime minister can be elected, is clearly linked to his return, because it is his party Pheu Thai that is on the brink of forming a government,” he added.

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A COMPROMISE WITH THE ESTABLISHMENT

On May 14, Thailand held a general election that saw Pheu Thai come second for the first time. The political veteran was beaten by the young and progressive party Move Forward, which clinched a surprise victory with 151 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives. 

The pair formed a coalition with small parties from the opposition camp before Pheu Thai broke off the alliance to join hands with the old ruling group.

The new coalition led by Pheu Thai includes military-allied parties United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharat, whose leaders played a key role in a military coup in 2014 that ousted the elected government of Thakin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The return of Thaksin is largely perceived as a compromise with Thailand’s old establishment, which comprises the monarchy, the military, the bureaucracy and the judiciary. 

It also implies that under Pheu Thai’s leadership, the government is not likely to do anything that could upset the establishment and jeopardise its stability, especially when the safety of Thaksin – held captive by the judicial system – is at stake.

In fact, Pheu Thai and its coalition partners made clear during a press conference on Monday that they will not amend the royal defamation law or include the Move Forward Party – seen by many conservatives as a threat to the establishment – in the government.

Currently, the Pheu Thai-led coalition commands 314 members of parliament (MPs) in the House of Representatives. To win the premiership for its candidate, it has to secure the approval of more than half of the national assembly, or about 60 more votes. 

It is likely that Pheu Thai will have to rely on the senators, who could determine the next leader of Thailand.

Pichayada Promchertchoo is CNA’s Indochina correspondent. She covers politics, the environment, human rights and transnational crimes.

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