Former Thai leader Thaksin goes to jail as political party linked to him wins vote to take power

Real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin’s victory as prime minister ends months of suspense, legal wrangling and horse-trading that followed May elections

Thaksin Shinawatra
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra walks with his family at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok, Thailand, on August 22, 2023.ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA (REUTERS)

A populist Thai party linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won a vote in Parliament on Tuesday to lead the country, hours after the divisive former leader returned from years of self-imposed exile and began an eight-year prison sentence.

Real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin ‘s victory as prime minister ended months of suspense, legal wrangling and horse-trading that followed May elections. After the progressive Move Forward Party, which won the most votes in the elections, was blocked from taking power by conservative senators, the Pheu Thai party entered a coalition with military parties linked to the coup that removed it from power in 2014.

Many observers say that Thaksin is betting that a friendly government will be able to cut his sentence short, although he has said his decision to return had nothing to do with Pheu Thai’s bid for power.

Thaksin’s return was an emotional moment for supporters of the 74-year-old billionaire, who won the loyalty of millions with populist policies that directed attention, and funding, to the country’s largely rural, often impoverished, north.

Hundreds of people gathered outside of the airport early in the morning, donning red clothes and holding signs with welcoming messages. They sang and chanted in anticipation, then raised a raucous cheer when Thaksin appeared at the terminal’s door.

At the airport, Thaksin prostrated himself before a portrait of Thailand’s king and queen and left a flower wreath. He spent a moment greeting supporters and the media waiting in front of the terminal, but did not speak.

“I feel fulfilled that I traveled here today to welcome him. If possible, I want to hug him. Everyone has tears, tears coming out of their eyes,” said Makawan Payakkae, a 43-year-old from Maha Sarakham province in Thailand’s northeast.

But others accused Thaksin and his party of turning their backs on the election results and the democracy movement that began after the military removed him from power.

“From the past, the party was seen by the people as the most diligent in standing up for democracy,” said Thanet Aphornsuvan, a retired Thai professor of history. “Now, that sentiment is going to disappear.”

Thaksin and parties he backed struggled with the military for years. He left Thailand 15 years ago, a few years after a 2006 coup that cut short his second term as prime minister and sparked years of upheaval. He was hit with corruption charges, which he dismissed as politically motivated, while in exile, and was tried and convicted in absentia.

A Pheu Thai government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted in 2014 by then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is now the outgoing prime minister.

Srettha will lead a coalition of 11 parties that includes two pro-military parties affiliated with Prayuth, while Move Forward was excluded from the coalition. He received the majority of 482 votes from both houses of Parliament.

Srettha said he was “greatly honored” to be chosen as the country’s new leader. He thanked the Thai people, the coalition parties and all lawmakers who participated in the vote.

“I will try my best to perform my duty without being worn down, in order to lift up the quality of life of all Thai people,” he said.

Pheu Thai leaders said Move Forward’s vow to reform a law that forbids insulting the royal family had made it impossible to rally enough support from other parties and the unelected Senate. Both houses of Parliament vote together for the prime minister under the military-implemented constitution.

Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, has been widely abused as a political weapon.

Thanet said the wide range of interests in the coalition would make Pheu Thai’s government an “unhappy” one, forced to accommodate allies from all ends of the political spectrum and a backlash from its own supporters.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said a Pheu Thai-led government could work effectively with Move Forward in the opposition, with Pheu Thai able to get things done despite “a lot of horse-trading,” and Move Forward able to push some reform.

Before the parliamentary vote began, Thaksin’s convoy went from the airport to the Supreme Court, where a special body that handles criminal cases against former officeholders confirmed an eight-year sentence given to him in absentia on corruption charges, which he has he dismissed as politically motivated. He then went directly to Bangkok’s main prison.

Many wonder how long he’s likely to stay in prison. Less than a week before the May elections, Thaksin announced plans to return before his birthday in July, but they were repeatedly delayed after his party failed to win the election and faced uncertain prospects of entering a new government.

“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.

Napon said Thaksin’s decision to return suggests that “he has received assurances that he will not have to serve a prison sentence in full.”

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam of the outgoing military-linked government has said that Thaksin can request a royal pardon like any other inmate, and could receive special consideration because of his age.

Correctional officers at Bangkok Remand Prison said in a news conference that following a medical check that Thaksin had been categorized as “vulnerable” due to his age and chronic conditions affecting his heart and lungs, including high blood pressure, and he will be held in isolation and monitored at all hours due to safety and health concerns.

Pheu Thai said it will control eight Cabinet posts and nine deputy Cabinet posts. The military-backed parties, Palang Pracharath and United Thai Nation, are to receive two Cabinet posts and two deputy posts each. Pheu Thai has not identified the ministries that each party will control.

It said the coalition agreed to back Pheu Thai’s platform of boosting the economy, increasing the minimum wage and ending mandatory conscription. They will also support keeping medical marijuana legal and work to amend the constitution to help the country “become more democratic,” while not touching the royal defamation law, Pheu Thai said.

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