Thaksin Returns

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has returned to Bangkok 17 months after being deposed in a military coup. Thaksin has repeatedly denied that he intends to reenter politics, from which he has been barred for five years. But how realistic is it to expect so driven and flamboyant a man to stay away from the limelight?

Thaksin already is believed by many to be providing advice to the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Indeed, Samak’s People Power Party (PPP) is widely considered a proxy for Thaksin. It was, after all, formed from the remains of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party, which was disbanded after the coup.

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Of course Thaksin’s political revival can’t get underway unless and until he has been acquitted of corruption charges. But he is likely to have made all the calculations related to the charges and other allegations before leaving London, and to have concluded that his chances of remaining free are high. After all, Thaksin is too serious a man to risk freedom for the sake of sentimentality.

Moreover, he remains very popular in Thailand, if not in Bangkok. His presence in the country might well spark a clamor for his “reluctant” return to politics.

Now, add to all this a soccer team.

Thaksin’s ownership of the Manchester City football club might not seem of great importance to observers outside Thailand and Asia. But Thais are soccer enthusiasts and even bigger fans of the English Premier League. Thaksin’s ownership is a source of considerable pride, especially outside elite circles in Bangkok. His proprietorship provides Thais with a direct connection to an elite team in the world’s most popular sport. This, in turn, gives him a substantial popularity dividend to add to his store. It was not for nothing that he had two Man City players accompany him on his return to Thailand.

The PPP’s victory in the December polls has also been seen as vindication of sorts for Thaksin. Given the opportunity to vote, voters turned to a party not unlike Thaksin’s pre-coup Thai Rak Thai. So why not complete the picture?

Obviously, none of this will please Thaksin’s opponents. So the possibility of demonstrations, stalemate, and a new crisis cannot be discounted.

The situation is all the more uncertain in view of a problem facing the PPP. Just hours before Thaksin returned to Bangkok, Thailand’s Election Commission convicted the speaker of the parliament’s lower house of fraud after he paid civil servants to campaign on behalf of the party. The Supreme Court must uphold the ruling, but if it does, the speaker will lose his parliamentary seat. And more ominously, the case could easily snowball, leading to the dissolution of the PPP and an end to Thaksin’s nascent political recovery. This would throw the party, government, and country into fresh turmoil.

Thus, under almost any scenario, Thaksin’s return could well mark a return to those fraught days of 2006 just before the last coup.