BANGKOK — Divisive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand on Tuesday after years of self-imposed exile to face criminal charges on the same day that a party affiliated with him plans to start forming a new government.
Thaksin has said his decision to return has nothing to do with an expected vote in Parliament later in the day on a candidate from the Pheu Thai party for prime minister. But many believe his arrival is connected to the party’s pursuit of power.
Thaksin flew from Singapore in his private jet and landed at Don Mueang International Airport around 9 a.m. local time. Thai broadcasters aired live footage of him walking out of the airport’s private jet terminal with his daughter, key Pheu Thai member Paetongtarn Shinawatra, and greeting his supporters.
After walking out, Thaksin placed a flower wreath and prostrated before a portrait of Thailand’s king and queen at the gate of the terminal.
Supporters of him gathered outside of the airport hours ahead of his arrival, donning red and holding sign with welcoming messages. Core members of the Pheu Thai party were also seen at the airport.
The 74-year-old billionaire promoted populist policies and used his telecommunications fortune to build his own Thai Rak Thai party and be elected prime minister in 2001 and easily reelected in 2005, before being ousted in a military coup in 2006 and fleeing into exile.
Thaksin was convicted in absentia in several criminal cases that he said were politically motivated, and he could face prison time unless he receives a royal pardon.
Pheu Thai is the latest in a string of parties affiliated with Thaksin. The military coup that ousted him triggered years of upheaval and division that pitted a mostly poor, rural majority in the north that supports Thaksin against royalists, the military and their urban backers.
In an interview with BBC Thai on Saturday, Thaksin said his return was planned before the date of the parliamentary vote was set, and that he was prepared to follow the Thai legal process.
Less than a week before May elections, Thaksin announced he would like to return before his birthday in July, but the plan was repeatedly delayed, with he and Paetongtarn citing both post-election uncertainties and his health.
Pheu Thai came in second in the elections but took over leadership in forming a new government after the surprise winner, the progressive Move Forward Party, was repeatedly rejected by conservative senators appointed by a previous military government.
Move Forward’s reform agenda appealed deeply to many Thais, particularly younger voters who were disenchanted by 17 years of military-backed rule, but was seen as a threat by the country’s conservative elites.
After more than three months without a new government, Parliament plans to vote Tuesday afternoon on Pheu Thai’s candidate for prime minister, former property developer Srettha Thavisin, after it formed an 11-party coalition including two parties allied with its former military adversaries. Pheu Thai has been heavily criticized by some of its supporters for backtracking on a pre-election pledge not to join hands with pro-military parties.
Pheu Thai officials have defended the decision by saying it was necessary to break the political deadlock and seek reconciliation after decades of deep political divisions.
“Although there are parties from the outgoing government in the coalition, all parties will work with Pheu Thai with efficiency and serve the best interests of the public,” Pheu Thai leader Chonlanan Srikaew said Monday. “The coalition parties will use this chance as a beginning to build love, harmony and reconciliation of the people in the country, and will work together to create prosperity for the country and the people into the future.”
The Pheu Thai-led coalition holds 314 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives and needs some support from the non-elected Senate, appointed by a previous military government, to achieve a majority in the combined parliamentary vote.
Both houses of Parliament vote together for the prime minister under the military-implemented constitution, in an arrangement designed to protect conservative military-backed rule. Senators, like the army, see themselves as guardians of traditional conservative royalist values.
Thaksin came back briefly to Thailand in 2008 to face a court trial before fleeing the country. He has avoided returning over concerns he would not be treated fairly by the military-backed government and establishment that has long held a sharp animosity toward him.
He has remained active in Thai politics, however, often making video calls to political rallies of parties backed by him.
“Thaksin’s plans to return to Thailand were postponed after the election results were announced — this implies a strong connection between the election, formation of coalitions, and selection of the prime minister on one hand, and Thaksin’s personal agenda on the other,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a political science researcher and visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“Thaksin has managed to make this election about himself personally, and the direction of a Pheu Thai-led coalition heavily depends on his personal whims.”
With the convictions against him, Thaksin could face more than a decade in prison, though Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam of the outgoing military-linked government said earlier that Thaksin is eligible to request a pardon and could receive special treatment because of his age.
Napon said Thaksin’s decision to return now suggests that “he has received assurances that he will not have to serve a prison sentence in full.”