Thaksin behind bars? Experts skeptical over former PM’s latest pledge

In a surprise move, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced last Friday (March 24) that he was ready to return and serve his sentence in Thailand regardless of the results of the May 14 general election.

His statement, however, was met with widespread skepticism, as many observers suspected it was simply intended to garner electoral support for his proxy party, Pheu Thai, ahead of the election.

Analysts see Thaksin’s comments as an attempt to increase Pheu Thai’s chance of a landslide victory and thus his bargaining power. But they warned his move could backfire, spurring conservative parties to join forces to prevent Pheu Thai’s return to power and Thaksin’s comeback.

Killing two birds with one stone

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a senior lecturer at Burapha University’s Faculty of Political Science and Law, said Thaksin’s latest move aims to increase Pheu Thai’s chances of winning enough seats to form a majority government.

“He is aware that without a landslide victory for Pheu Thai, his chances of returning home are minimal,” Olarn said.

Thaksin was overthrown in the 2006 military coup and sentenced in absentia to a total of 12 years in prison after being found guilty on four separate counts.

Olarn said the former prime minister was trying to kill two birds with one stone. First, he wanted to convince skeptical Pheu Thai supporters that he didn’t want the party to seek amnesty for him. Second, he aimed to persuade supporters of other opposition parties to help Pheu Thai achieve a landslide victory, saying that the ruling Palang Pracharath party is “probably the last choice” for Pheu Thai to form a post-election coalition to form, said the academic.

The analyst said Thaksin prefers to play a game he can win. And Thaksin seems convinced that the better the Pheu Thai’s chance of forming the next government, the greater his bargaining power vis-à-vis Thai elites, Olarn said.

“Playing this game can help Pheu Thai earn the big win it needs to gain the upper hand in negotiations for power. [Thaksin] knows full well that Thai elites always prefer to be on the winning side. He has to keep the chances of winning alive, so he has to play this game,” the analyst said.

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Interview with Japanese media

In an interview with Kyodo News last week, Thaksin insisted he would not seek an amnesty from parliament even if Pheu Thai took power after the election.

“I’ve already served 16 years in a ‘big prison’ because they prevented me from staying with my family,” he said, referring to his self-imposed exile abroad. “I’ve suffered enough. If I were to suffer again in the smaller prison [in Thailand]it’s okay,” the 73-year-old dollar billionaire said.

“It’s not really the price I want to pay, but I will pay because I want to stay with my grandchildren. I should spend the rest of my life with my children and grandchildren,” he added.

Thaksin faced eight criminal charges during his tenure as Prime Minister between February 2001 and September 2006. He was sentenced to a total of 12 years in prison on four counts, but the statute of limitations on one count resulted in a two-year sentence since expired.

He was acquitted on two counts while the other two counts are still in court.

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Repeated remarks on the subject of “homecoming”

This isn’t the first time Thaksin has discussed a return to Thailand. Last year, he repeatedly told fans of his Care Talk online chats with his Thailand-based lieutenants that he would “return home” by the end of the year.

The fugitive ex-premier, believed to be the patriarch of Pheu Thai, has gone by the name “Tony Woodsome” on social media.

In early 2022, as a “New Year’s gift to the Thai people, Thaksin offered to work for them and the country when I come back”. He said he would only “whisper” his youngest daughter Paetongtarn about the exact timing of his return because it was a “big secret”. Later that year, he stated he would “rely on himself” upon his return to Thailand, implying he was ready to serve his prison sentence without pardon.

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Analysts described the move as trying to help his daughter as she led Pheu Thai to the next election.

Former red shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan – a Thaksin ally turned staunch critic – was unconvinced by his ex-boss’s words. He urged Thaksin to return before the May 14 election to prove his move was not politically motivated.

“If you wait until after the election, when the ballots are already cast, what’s the guarantee that you’ll really go home? You should be fair to people who believe you. If you insist this has nothing to do with votes, you must come back before May 14,” the activist said.

Pheu Thai could benefit from this

Wanwichit Boonprong, a lecturer in political science at Rangsit University, said Thaksin’s latest move will surely yield a positive outcome for Pheu Thai. It could water down criticism that Thaksin has fled Thai justice and that Pheu Thai is under his influence.

Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the King Prajadhipok Institute’s Office of Innovation for Democracy, agreed that Thaksin’s promise to serve a prison sentence in Thailand would benefit Pheu Thai. He said the ex-PM had previously undermined the party’s popularity by speaking out about his plan to “return home” amid speculation he had struck a political deal to avoid time behind bars.

Wanwichit reckons Thaksin’s statement will help convince some skeptical supporters who have lost faith in Pheu Thai and his Shinawatra supporters. “Thaksin’s words will help take votes away from these supporters,” he said.

Thaksin’s move, Wanchiwit said, aimed to test the waters and open the door to a landslide victory. Pheu Thai would find it easier to campaign for the election if voters perceived a rift between the party and Thaksin.

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With Thaksin distancing himself from the party, Wanwichit said Pheu Thai would gain an advantage as she could focus on building an image of professionalism rather than patriarchal politics.

The analyst said Thaksin chose to “play that game” to increase Pheu Thai’s chance of a landslide victory by poaching liberal voters from Move Forward, the other major opposition party. Pheu Thai fears losing party-list votes for Move Forward, which would undermine their chance of a landslide, he said.

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“Thaksin’s Crucial Venture”

However, Olarn warned that Thaksin’s move to Pheu Thai could backfire as it could pose concerns to potential supporters who don’t like the ex-premier.

The conservative camp led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is also likely to unite more in hopes of avoiding a landslide victory for Pheu Thai, he added.

Olarn also expects conservative forces to revive the “Thaksin specter” to thwart his proxy party’s return to power.

“I think Thaksin was careless to make such an announcement. It may be his strategy, but it could backfire. Anti-Thaksin conservatives will unite more to prevent his return,” Olarn said.

“This is a crucial gamble for Thaksin,” he said.

No electricity, no return

Olarn reckoned that Thaksin would only consider serving his sentence if Pheu Thai returns to power after an eight-year absence.

“The winner always gets the privilege. If Pheu Thai fails to form the next government, Thaksin will definitely not return,” the analyst said.

Wanwichit said that if Thaksin does return to serve his unconditional time, he would be doing Pheu Thai a favor by proving he is not fleeing his punishment and returning as an ordinary person.

But the analyst agreed that Thaksin would not return unless Pheu Thai returned to government after the next election.

From Thai PBS World Politburo


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