One step forward two steps back

Like an unwanted relative at a Christmas dinner he is back.

Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra went into self-imposed exile in Dubai after the coup that removed him from office in 2006.

He was convicted in absentia in 2008 of corruption, conflict of interest and abuse of power — charges that he has denied.

He returned to Thailand in August last year after the May 2023 election that initially placed the popular and reformist Move Forward Party in power but which was followed by months of uncertainty.

The last six months, as far as have been reported, have been spent in the comforts of the police hospital in the heart of Ratchaprasong.

Thaksin will be freed, perhaps as early as Sunday, after serving just six months of his eight-year jail term for graft and abuse of power, the government said on Tuesday.

On his return to Thailand his initial sentence was reduced by royal pardon to one year.

“Thaksin was prime minister for many years and did many good things for the country for a long time. After he comes out, he would be a normal citizen,” Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said, according to Reuters.

It is very hard, maybe impossible, to imagine Thaksin being satisfied with a role as a normal citizen. An estimated US$2 billion net worth (Forbes, 2024) means he is far from normal. That is quite a war chest.

Thaksin has been a central figure in Thai politics for two decades and is an ally of Srettha, who belongs to the Pheu Thai party that is in effect controlled by the powerful Shinawatra family.

Thaksin, a police officer-turned-telecoms magnate, was a populist leader as prime minister; loved by many but reviled by Thailand’s elite.

His younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra won the 2011 election but was also ousted by the military in 2014. She remains outside Thailand but presumably not for much longer.

Thaksin’s return to Thailand was seen by analysts as part of a deal with the military, with his homecoming coinciding with the election of Srettha as prime minister by the country’s parliament; ending a period of uncertainty after the election

Pheu Thai finished second in the general election behind the progressive Move Forward party, which won on the back of promises to reform the military and monarchy. But Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, failed to win the backing of Thailand’s conservative military-royalist establishment.

When Thaksin returned to Thailand in August The Economist wrote the following under the headline “Thaksin’s grubby compromise”:

The Economist – August 22nd 2023

“Ever since Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand’s richest men, became prime minister in 2001 he has loomed over the country’s politics. Leaders of the army and royal establishment, Thailand’s dominant institutions, despise him and resent his popularity among the poor Thais he wooed with populist giveaways. Even after Mr Thaksin was ousted in an army coup in 2006 and later fled the country, parties connected to his family continued to command widespread support.

That pattern shifted dramatically in May, when a party of punchy liberal reformers called Move Forward won more seats than any other party. This was a threat to the military establishment—which therefore used its control of an army-rigged system to stop Move Forward forming a government. The deadlock ended on August 22nd when Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon and candidate from Mr Thaksin’s Pheu Thai party, was appointed as the country’s next prime minister.

At the head of a sprawling coalition of 11 parties, he received a clinching majority in a combined vote of the House of Representatives and the military-appointed Senate. After weeks of uncertainty, the promise of a functioning government was needed; the Thai baht rose on the news. But the deal between Mr Thaksin and the military establishment, in effect to nobble Move Forward, looks bad for Thai democracy.

A former critic of the establishment, Mr Thaksin has now launched his party into a coalition including the two largest military parties—an arrangement Pheu Thai had previously forsworn. Move Forward, which said it would not support any alliance with pro-military parties, will now be the main opposition party.

The price of Pheu Thai’s accommodation with the establishment was suggested earlier on August 22nd, when Mr Thaksin arrived in Bangkok by private jet, thereby ending 15 years in self-imposed exile. Upon disembarking, he bowed before a portrait of the king. He was then arrested on long-standing corruption charges for which he has been sentenced to eight years in prison. But he is expected to receive a royal pardon before long. How active a role he will then play in politics is unclear. The 74-year-old claims merely to want to be close to his grandchildren. But even if that were plausible, his lead role in the formation of the new government is testament to his continuing political clout.

Many in Thailand are outraged by Mr Thaksin’s opportunism. Ahead of the election, Pheu Thai promised to minimise the army’s role in politics. It had good reason to. Mr Thaksin is not the only member of his family ousted in a military coup; a government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was also toppled in 2014. During violent street protests in 2010, the army shot and killed Mr Thaksin’s supporters. Yet instead of reducing the army, Mr Thaksin has now cemented its overreach. Mr Srettha would not have been appointed without support from pro-military parties.

Mr Thaksin’s party may come to rue this. In a poll by the National Institute of Development Administration, a research outfit, over 60% of Thais said they disagreed with Pheu Thai going into government with pro-military parties. In expectation of the deal, protesters recently gathered outside Pheu Thai’s headquarters in Bangkok. Some poured fake blood onto effigies of Mr Thaksin and set them alight.

Mr Thaksin and his party must hope to placate Thais by providing better government than the army has. That should not be hard. A decade of military rule has been defined by incompetence and corruption. Thailand’s economy has lagged its neighbours, including Indonesia and Vietnam. Its post-covid economic recovery has been the slowest in South-East Asia. Mr Thaksin and his party at least have a record of decent economic management. And despite the sprawling nature of its new coalition, it should survive a four-year term, predicts Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee of Chulalongkorn University. That is because, if the government foundered and fresh elections were held, Move Forward would be likely to win by a bigger margin than it did in May. Despite Mr. Thaksin’s dealmaking, Thailand’s most popular party is not done yet.”

Potentially interesting times lie ahead.