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Thaksin’s Presence Shows Political Influence, Say Analysts

FILE - Thai telecommunication tycoon and leader of Thai Rak Thai Party Thaksin Shinawatra waves during campaign rally in Bangkok, Dec. 26, 2000. The controversial former Prime Minister of Thailand, returned to Thailand last year after nearly a decade of self-imposed exile.
FILE - Thai telecommunication tycoon and leader of Thai Rak Thai Party Thaksin Shinawatra waves during campaign rally in Bangkok, Dec. 26, 2000. The controversial former Prime Minister of Thailand, returned to Thailand last year after nearly a decade of self-imposed exile.

Since Thaksin Shinawatra’s late-February parole from a police hospital in Bangkok, public support for Thailand’s former prime minister has been evident.

The 74-year-old received a hero’s welcome Tuesday when he visited the headquarters of Pheu Thai, the party he founded, which now leads Thailand’s government.

But his return to Thailand after 16 years in self-imposed exile has only added to questions about how much political power Thaksin now holds.

Pheu Thai lawmakers have insisted Thaksin’s appearance at party headquarters — which follows a visit to his hometown of Chiang Mai, where he was also mobbed by supporters — has no political significance.

Experts, however, say the mere fact of his renewed presence puts him in a position of political influence.

“Thaksin has been making sure he won't simply become obscure by making a high-profile visit to Chiang Mai, which attracted widespread reporting by the Thai press,” Pravit Rojanaphruk, a veteran journalist and political analyst, told VOA.

“Given Thaksin's persistent popularity ... and the fact that his daughter [Paetongtarn Shinawatra] heads the ruling Pheu Thai party, it seems [Prime Minister] Srettha [Thavisin] will have to quickly prove his worth by delivering results that [are] visible to the voters, he said.

“Otherwise, the risk of him being replaced by Paetongtarn will be high,” Pravit added. “As for Thaksin: he's clearly playing the role of kingmaker if not chairman of the current administration, with more influence than the PM himself.”

A popular but divisive figure in Thailand, Thaksin served as prime minister from 2001 through 2006, when he was ousted by a military coup. Faced with charges of corruption and tax evasion, he fled into exile in 2008.

Changing political landscape

While the billionaire businessman’s Pheu Thai movement championed an ideology of populism, reform and opposition to military rule, those same values made Thaksin unpopular with Thailand’s upper class and royalists.

Nearly two decades on, the Southeast Asian country’s political landscape has changed. Thaksin’s return in August coincided with Pheu Thai’s return to governance, with Srettha as the kingdom’s 30th prime minister.

Still subject to eight years in prison when he returned, Thaksin received a royal pardon that reduced his sentence to a year, triggering speculation among some observers that a secret deal would allow for his political rehabilitation amid Pheu Thai’s return to power.

Thaksin’s permanent transfer to Bangkok’s Police General Hospital just hours into his sentence — unspecified health issues were cited by officials — spurred additional rumors of a political arrangement.

Thaksin’s activities have already been followed closely by the press since he was paroled from the hospital last month. He has already received a visit from former Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who passed power to his son Hun Manet last year.

Napon Jatusripitak, a political scientist at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think-tank, believes Thaksin is aiming to expand his base in Thailand’s political landscape.

“I think Thaksin is sending a clear and unmistakable signal that the Shinawatra political machine is not only up and running again, but also in a position, now more than ever, to influence the direction of this government, especially in its dealings with Cambodia,” he told VOA.

“This is most likely geared towards reconsolidating his political base, among both actors in the government and in the electorate, after Pheu Thai’s poor election performance and betrayal of its supporters’ mandate,” Napon added.

Following elections last year, Pheu Thai formed a coalition that includes rival military parties, drawing criticism from supporters.

Thaksin’s influence could also stifle the rise of the reformist Move Forward Party, which won the most votes in the general election but was blocked by the Senate from leading the government because of its pledge to amend a law that criminalizes criticism of the monarchy.

“If he fails to serve as an effective buffer for the conservative establishment against the Move Forward Party, he’ll no longer be needed as an ally,” Napon said.

Despite Thaksin’s popularity and importance to Pheu Thai, not everyone is happy with the Thai tycoon. Dozens of demonstrators protested his parole when they gathered at a makeshift rally point outside of Thailand’s Government House last month.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University, wrote that Thaksin’s influence is not what it was.

“Mr. Thaksin’s hand in politics is weaker than it used to be,” Thitinan wrote in an op-ed for the Bangkok Post.

Calling Move Forward's electoral wins “an unprecedented defeat” for Pheu Thai, which had dominated elections for the last two decades, Thitinan said Move Forward’s rise is evidence of Thaksin’s age and waning influence.

The Shinawatra family, he suggested, now has less of a monolithically top-down structure and is limited to exercising influence and power only in collaboration with others.

But Thaksin’s reappearance on the political scene could squeeze Prime Minister Srettha, a former finance minister who Thitinan says is “beholden to Thaksin” and under “pressure to perform” as he guides Thailand’s economy, which unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter of 2023.