Blast from the past Thaksin eyes power
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Blast from the past Thaksin eyes power

Former prime minister and fugitive from justice Thaksin Shinawatra, known under the alias Tony Woodsome, reaches out to local supporters in Thailand and members of the Pheu Thai Party via video conference in June last year. (TV screen capture)
Former prime minister and fugitive from justice Thaksin Shinawatra, known under the alias Tony Woodsome, reaches out to local supporters in Thailand and members of the Pheu Thai Party via video conference in June last year. (TV screen capture)

As Thai politics is about to take another turn, with the next election on the horizon, fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is making a stir by vowing to stage a comeback.

Thaksin, who was handed a two-year jail term for the controversial Ratchada land purchase scheme, escaped from justice in 2008 after previously making a brief return.

It is widely speculated that his Pheu Thai Party will be a poll favourite in the next election. Since establishing Thai Rak Thai (TRT) in 2001, his parties, despite ending up being dissolved, always emerged a major winner as the tycoon-turned-politician shrewdly reaped the benefits by capitalising on all the rules of the constitution.

When winning the 2001 poll, Thaksin managed to sweep minor parties under his wing. With 320 MPs in total, he ran the country under what many termed a parliamentary dictatorship. Thaksin allegedly accumulated his wealth through a series of graft-oriented policies while the nation experienced growing political divisions like never before.

Since then, charter drafters have tried unsuccessfully to block Thaksin-led parties. With such an aim in mind, the military instructed those responsible for drawing up the 2007 constitution to introduce the so-called judicial revolution -- or tulakan phiwat -- thereby creating a new role for judicial officers in independent agencies.

At the same time, the charter drafters changed the electoral system to prevent any large single party from obtaining absolute power.

All such attempts failed in the end to burst Thaksin's bubble, however. The People's Power Party, a reincarnation of the TRT, still won the election with 233 seats. And as Thaksin faced a ban from politics, he simply named Samak Sundaravej as the party leader. Samak was red-carded by the charter court for receiving payment, albeit a relatively small sum, from a TV cooking programme, which violated the rules.

Thaksin then installed Somchai Wongsawat as party leader. But Mr Somchai also enjoyed a very short run as the charter court unanimously dissolved the party for poll fraud. Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was subsequently sworn in. But after two years, he faced massive red-shirt demonstrations that resulted in a violent crackdown. Shortly after that, he dissolved parliament amid a political deadlock.

Thaksin responded by creating another reincarnation of the TRT, this time in the form of Pheu Thai. He then introduced his youngest sister, Yingluck, as a nominee to lead it. With an election campaign branded as "Thaksin thinks, Yingluck carries out", the party emerged as a big winner with 256 MPs in 2011.

Despite facing several sticky situations, especially the notorious rice-pledging scheme, the Pheu Thai administration survived all of the political challenges until it tried to whitewash Thaksin through a contentious blanket amnesty bill that sparked public anger. Massive street protests that lasted for several months crippled the country and gave the military an excuse for another intervention. Yingluck, like her fugitive brother, ended up fleeing the country.

Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, who formed the since-disbanded National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), took office and appointed Meechai Ruchupan to lead a charter-drafting panel, which came up with the 2017 constitution.

With the goal of blocking Thaksin and his party, the charter contains a swath of contentious elements, which allowed Gen Prayut and his NCPO men to stay in power. One particularly troubling element has always been the 250-strong Senate, which was appointed by the NCPO and effectively has the power to name the prime minister. Well aware that the charter's goal was to weaken the big parties, Thaksin formed a medium-sized party called Thai Raksa Chart that was eventually dissolved after it drew Princess Ubolrat into the political fray.

The charter and organic election law stipulated the use of a method of calculating seats that was quickly seen as suspect, resulting in Pheu Thai being stripped of all its list-MPs and providing a windfall for minor parties.

With such political tricks in play, the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) -- the first runner- up in the elections -- joined hands with the Bhumjaithai Party and several minor ones to successfully form a government, albeit one with a razor-thin majority. Gen Prayut, with support from the NCPO-appointed Senate, then duly took the helm as prime minister for another term.

Over the past decade, the oligarchs have made a great effort to keep Thaksin away from politics. Yet, he and his offshoot political party could have bounced back to emerge as a runaway winner including in the latest national election in 2019. The problem was that Pheu Thai was unable to form a coalition government due to how the MPs seats were calculated under the junta-sponsored charter.

Some members of Thaksin's team, notably Chaturon Chaisang, reportedly wanted the party to evolve as a political institution, not just be a party belonging to one specific individual. To do so, the party would need to detach itself from Thaksin and the Shinawatra family altogether, to the point that it no longer finds itself a target of the old leaders. But Thaksin stubbornly shrugs off the idea, constantly tightening his grip on the party.

In the latest development, he fielded Paethongtan, his daughter. A political novice, much like Yingluck, Ms Paethongtan became a Pheu Thai executive, and it is said she might be proposed as the party's candidate for the premiership in the next election. Thaksin believes that being a Shinawatra member is good enough, and that at the age of 33, his daughter may be able to draw support from the younger generation.

Although the party has yet to declare Ms Paethongtan as its prime ministerial candidate, the way it promotes her role is a clear sign that a woman will carry the torch. Yingluck also broke her political hibernation to solicit support for the family.

The aggressive move by the Shinawatra clan comes at a time when Gen Prayut is facing political turbulence, with PPRP infighting and myriad economic problems. If the election law can be amended, with the re-introduction of the two-ballot system that previously benefitted his party, Thaksin would be more confident of another victory.

Of course, he would need a landslide victory. If the party can gain more than 250 MPs, it could ignore the Senate altogether and form a government. With massive voter support, Thaksin and his party are in the position to challenge the old guard, and the Senate.

Pheu Thai has to be aware that it is the Move Forward Party (MFP), not the PPRP, that is its real challenger in Bangkok and the other big provinces. The MFP, which rose from the ashes of the disbanded Future Forward Party (FFP), took much of its political base, with clear support from the younger generation.

Pheu Thai has disappointed many young voters by not pitching in to support structural change and reform, but instead focus on protecting the interest of the Shinawatras, most of the time through compromises with the old guard.

At the same time, Pheu Thai cannot dismiss Bhumjaithai which has made deep inroads in the Northeast, its former stronghold.

The latest "I shall return" campaign, and the push for Ms Paethongtan as a future leader reinforce the "Thaksinism" of Pheu Thai. Thaksin may believe he can still cast a spell over Pheu Thai voters.

If realised, this would mean the Shinawatra clan has produced four prime ministers in less than two decades. But there are numerous bumps in the road ahead.

In addition, Thaksin knows that if he returns to Thailand, he would have to serve his stint in prison, not only for the land purchase case, but for other charges that are also being pursued. The fugitive can never accept that, or he wouldn't have fled the country in the first place. Is he secretly hoping for an amnesty? Probably.

But the word "amnesty" still haunts some Thai people. If Pheu Thai ends up scoring a big victory in the next election and really pushes for another amnesty for its boss, it must know that the effort may backfire as history has a tendency of repeating itself.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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