Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted fugitive former prime minister of Thailand, returned to the country Tuesday for the first time after more than 15 years in self-exile, reintroducing a towering and divisive figure at a time when the kingdom’s often fraught political scene is in a fresh state of flux.
Thaksin, the head of a famed political dynasty and a former owner of Manchester City Football Club, was prime minister from 2001 until he was ousted in a military coup in 2006 while in New York attending a UN meeting.
He returned to Thailand briefly before fleeing the country in 2008 over a corruption conviction and could face up to 10 years in prison upon his arrival.
Thaksin, 74, arrived at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport by private jet at 9 a.m. local time. He exited the airport’s private jet terminal some 90 minutes later, greeting a crowd of supporters opposite and bowing to a portrait of Thailand’s king.
Video showed Thaksin hugging his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who also lives in self-exile, before boarding a plane in Singapore.
With his populist policies that appealed to Thailand’s rural and working class, Thaksin created a political juggernaut that has dominated Thai politics in some form for the past 20 years.
His return after so many years coincides with an expected parliament vote for a new prime minister, with lawmakers hoping to break a political deadlock more than three months after elections were won by a popular progressive party that has been stymied by the kingdom’s political elites.
The Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai party, which came second in the May election, will nominate its choice for the country’s next leader Tuesday: real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin.
In a stunning about-face, Pheu Thai on Monday struck a deal with its former military rivals in a bid to secure enough parliamentary votes to form a government.
Though its election campaign included keeping the military out of power, its 11-party alliance includes military-backed parties Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation Party.
Both those parties are affiliated with coup leader and outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha, and linked to the military junta that toppled a democratically elected government headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.
The move also subverts the will of millions of Thais who voted overwhelmingly for progressive parties in the May election, delivering a powerful rebuke to the country’s military-backed establishment that has ruled Thailand since the coup.
Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew said in a statement Monday that the coalition would not include Move Forward Party, which won the most votes in the election.
Move Forward won on a platform of radical change and had pledged to introduce royal reform – a taboo topic in Thailand, where any frank discussion of the monarchy is fraught with the threat of prison because of strict lese majeste laws, known as Article 112.
With Move Forward now in the opposition, the alliance is likely to add fuel to the fire of the progressive movement’s young support base with the potential for mass street protests.
A survey by the National Institute of Development Administration found about 64% of 1,310 respondents disagreed or totally disagreed with the idea of the Pheu Thai party forming a “special government” with military-backed rivals, according to Reuters.
It is into the febrile political atmosphere that Thaksin’s return now adds a further layer of the unknown.
A telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin rose to power after a landslide election win in 2001. He grew hugely popular with the rural poor thanks to his offers of affordable medical care, debt relief and his anti-establishment stance – and eventually businesses warmed to him too, largely due to his trademark “Thaksinomics” that ushered in an era of economic success.
The policies, which included loans and debt moratoriums for farmers as well as subsidized fuel prices and greater access to healthcare and education were aimed at rural Thais, who make up the majority of the country’s population – but they were anathema to the country’s rich elites and conservatives who accused Thaksin of being a dangerous and corrupt populist.
Thailand’s military has a long track record of seizing power with more than a dozen successful coups since 1932.
In 2006, Thaksin was ousted and, facing a potential prison sentence over corruption charges, went into self-imposed exile.
“He became a threat because his popularity was competing against the establishment,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Despite Thaksin’s physical absence, he has retained an outsized influence on Thai politics. Until this year, political parties allied to Thaksin had won the most seats in every election since 2001, but have struggled to hold on to power due to the military exerting its influence, whether through coups or other means.
For instance, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck became the country’s first female prime minister in 2011 – but she was dismissed from office in 2014 after the Constitutional Court ruled she had abused her position.
Former army chief Prayut then seized power from the Pheu Thai government, and Yingluck followed Thaksin into self-imposed exile. Prayut has ruled Thailand since, announcing in July that he would not seek re-election and will retire from politics.
“His opponents and enemies have done everything to (Thaksin), including overthrowing him in the military coup, not once but twice – in 2006 against him, in 2014 against his sister. They have dissolved his parties twice,” said Thitinan. “We’ve gone through so much in Thailand.”
Thaksin’s daughter Paetongtarn stepped into the limelight this year, selected by the Pheu Thai party as one of three prime ministerial candidates for the May election – before the Move Forward Party swept to its unexpected victory.