In a momentous turn of events, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has stepped back onto Thai soil after spending 15 years in self-imposed exile, and after numerous thwarted attempts to return amidst an impending prison sentence.
Thaksin's arrival was marked by a private jet landing at Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport around 9 a.m. A throng of supporters gathered outside the airport, eager to extend a warm welcome to the former leader.
Speaking from Singapore's Seletar Airport before boarding the flight to Thailand, Thaksin expressed his sentiment: "It's time for me to be with the Thai people."
This homecoming coincided with a parliamentary vote set to determine Thailand's new prime minister. Thaksin's Pheu Thai party is hopeful of forming a fresh government, having brokered a coalition.
Across more than two decades, even during his absence, Thaksin has remained a dominant presence in Thai politics. Buoyed by his telecommunications wealth, he held discussions with influential figures across various cities including Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong, his frequent haunts. Thaksin also maintained an active presence on social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) and Clubhouse, using these platforms to voice his opinions.
"I am free to travel anywhere in the world, but I have been kept away from my family. If I return and have to face a smaller jail, it's not an issue," Thaksin disclosed in an interview with Nikkei in March.
Until this year, Thaksin-affiliated parties had clinched victory in every election since his ascent to power with the Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who is also in self-exile due to a five-year prison sentence, was the last Pheu Thai prime minister before the 2014 coup.
Upon his return, Thaksin confronts a 12-year prison term over graft and corruption charges for which he was convicted in absentia in 2008. Yet, experts doubt that the 74-year-old will spend time incarcerated; individuals aged over 70 in Thailand can request parole or a royal pardon.
The resolution of the "Thaksin factor" is deemed essential for reconciliation between his populist faction and the conservative military establishment, as per Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Thaksin's presence could potentially reshape the landscape post the May 14 Thai election. The Pheu Thai party initially aimed for over 300 lower house seats to install a prime minister without hindrance from the military-appointed Senate. However, the progressive Move Forward Party has gained momentum, emerging as a more favored bearer of the pro-democracy cause.
Yet, three months post-election, Pheu Thai is in prime position to shape a government after distancing itself from Move Forward and aligning with parties led by those who ousted Yingluck. Pending parliamentary approval, the party could regain the prime ministership by day's end.
Nonetheless, Thaksin's return might affect Pheu Thai's democratic credibility for upcoming elections, especially after losing reform-focused voters to Move Forward. As Thitinan emphasizes, Thai politics now revolves around structural reform, surpassing the class and geographical divisions that Thaksin's earlier victories were based on.
Nattawut Saikua, leader of the "Red Shirt" pro-democracy movement, severed ties with Pheu Thai, citing its alignment with military-linked parties. This shift raises questions about the party's post-Thaksin orientation.
"Within Pheu Thai, there are those favoring a post-Thaksin stance over a pro-Thaksin alignment," explains Duncan McCargo, professor at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. He further elaborates that while some Pheu Thai supporters accept the pragmatic path back to power, dedicated "Red Shirts" perceive such maneuvering as a betrayal of their cause.
credit photo: Tsubasa Suruga