Return of Thaksin adds to political stakes as Parliament votes for PM

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwej
Return of Thaksin adds to political stakes as Parliament votes for PM Exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra gestures during an interview in Hong Kong on March 25, 2019.

UPDATED at 7:51 a.m. EDT on 2023-08-21

Former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra is expected to return home from 15 years of self-imposed exile on Tuesday, the same day Parliament is set to vote for a new prime minister.

Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn, announced at the weekend that her father would arrive at Don Mueang Airport at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, only hours before lawmakers decide whether to support the nomination of property tycoon Srettha Thavisin from the Pheu Thai Party for prime minister.

Pheu Thai, the populist vehicle of the Shinawatra family, is seeking to form a new government after the progressive Move Forward Party failed last month, following fierce opposition from Thailand’s conservative ruling elite.

The timing of Thaksin’s arrival and what backroom deal making laid the foundations for his return have added to months of political intrigue in Thailand, which has been under a caretaker government since a general election on May 14.

“We haven’t done a deal with anybody,” Paetongtarn said on Sunday at Bangkok Thonburi University, after praying at Bangkok City Pillar Shrine.

“I know my father can’t be distinguished from politics but his return is as a Thai citizen. He wants to come back to raise seven grandchildren. He is not thinking about politics or being held a hostage.”

Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications magnate, was ousted as prime minister in a military coup in 2006 and fled Thailand in 2008 to escape a prison term for several different charges, including corruption and tax evasion. Thaksin faces a combined 10-year jail term for three offenses, but he can seek a royal pardon.  

He had been reluctant to return earlier over concerns he would be treated unfairly by the military-backed government that deposed his sister, Yingluck, in a coup in 2014. Her overthrow was spearheaded by then-Army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s current caretaker prime minister who has led the country in one form or another since the coup nine years ago. 

“Tomorrow at 9 a.m., I beg for permission to live on the Thai soil and share the breath with the Thai people,” the self-exiled former prime minister said Monday in a message posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. 

Thaksin, 74, is unlikely to have been allowed back into the country without a political deal, say some observers of Thai politics.

“We must understand the complexity of Thai politics: Parliament or the government are not the final authority – there are too many power axes,” associate professor Thanaporn Sriyakul, chairman of the Political Science Association at Kasetsart University, told BenarNews.

“Now, the opposite axis can be assured the nation goes the way it wants; no amendment to the constitution and the [Pheu Thai] party won’t get out of line – Thaksin is being held hostage.”    

If Srettha’s bid for PM fails and Paetongtarn is nominated in his place, Thaksin will remain influential in Thai politics, Thanaporn said.

“We may see ministers parading to his cell asking for policy advice,” he said. “His daughter as prime minister could also help him while serving time in jail and lessen the length of his sentence.”

Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra attends a birthday celebration held by red shirt supporters, a day before her father Thaksin is due to return from self-exile, at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Aug. 21, 2023. [Reuters]

Thailand’s national police chief, Gen. Damrongsak Kittiprapat said on Monday Thaksin would be detained upon arrival and referred to the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders. He will then be issued with a warrant for his imprisonment and taken to Bangkok Remand Prison, he said. 

Dr. Nuttakorn Vititanon, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University, said there was no guarantee that Thaksin would receive a pardon from King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X).

“To receive a royal pardon, he has to serve one-third of his sentence,” said Dr. Nuttakorn Vititanon, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University.

“If we take a deep look at the corruption case, it is likely that he will not be royally pardoned at all. The situation is bleak.”

Thaksin’s return adds to the political stakes ahead of Tuesday’s parliamentary vote for prime minister. 

On Monday, Pheu Thai unveiled an 11-party alliance that includes two royalist parties established by former coup leaders.

Srettha now has the backing of 314 seats in the 500-member house of representatives. He needs at least 375 votes from the combined house and senate to seat a new prime minister. 

Pheu Thai’s decision to work with United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath is likely to upset some supporters, but it could help it win votes from senators in the 250-seat upper house.

Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew said the inclusion of the two military-aligned parties in its alliance was a matter of necessity. 

“Unless we brought these two parties in, we would still fail,” Cholnan said at a press briefing.

“We have to do good by the country and the people by setting up an elected government with Pheu Thai being at the core. There are no chances that we will serve other parties’ purposes.”

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai, Thailand, contributed to the report.


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