Thailand's Pheu Thai launches PM bid as fugitive figurehead Thaksin eyes return

By Reuters   August 21, 2023 | 03:09 pm PT
Thailand's Pheu Thai launches PM bid as fugitive figurehead Thaksin eyes return
Pheu Thai's prime ministerial candidate, Srettha Thavisin, who is set to be nominated for premier in a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, speaks during a party members' meeting at the party headquarter, in Bangkok, Thailand, August 21, 2023. Photo by Reuters
Thailand's Pheu Thai Party will seek to form a new government with some of its biggest rivals in a parliamentary vote on Tuesday, coinciding with the promise of a historic return from 17 years of exile by its fugitive figurehead Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thailand has been under a caretaker government since March and its new parliament has been deadlocked for weeks after anti-establishment election winners Move Forward were blocked by conservative lawmakers, leaving populist heavyweight Pheu Thai to lead a new effort.

The winner of five elections over the past two decades, Pheu Thai, a political juggernaut founded by the billionaire Shinawatra family, has agreed a contentious alliance including two parties backed by a military that overthrew two of its governments in coups in 2006 and 2014.

The lower house and military-appointed Senate must decide on Tuesday whether to endorse the prime ministerial nomination of Srettha Thavisin, a real estate tycoon who was thrust into politics just a few months ago.

Srettha said on Monday Pheu Thai had failed to secure the outright majority it had targeted, so its only chance of governing was in partnership with some rivals it had vowed not to work with.

"Things that were said during the election were one thing. But we didn't really get the landslide, so we had to renege," said Srettha, who needs the backing of more than half of the legislature.

"We are not lying to the people, but we have to be realistic."

Almost certain to overshadow Tuesday's vote will be the likely dramatic return of 74-year-old Thaksin, a former premier who is loved and loathed in equal measures in the Southeast Asian country.

He fled abroad in 2008 to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power, two years after the military toppled him alleging corruption and disloyalty to the monarchy.

Thaksin, a former policeman, telecoms tycoon and English Premier League football club owner, won the hearts of millions of working-class Thais with populist giveaways ranging from cash handouts and village loans to farm subsidies and universal healthcare.

But his rapid rise and that of a wave of capitalist upstarts put him at odds with a nexus of royalists, military and old money families, triggering an intractable power struggle that is still being played out today.

Thaksin maintains all charges and allegations against him were trumped up to keep him from power and has over the years repeatedly promised to make his return.

He is expected to be arrested upon his return and taken directly to the Supreme Court for a hearing then transferred to a prison, according to the national police commissioner.

Still, he seems determined and confident to follow through this time, however, with widespread speculation that Pheu Thai's alliance with its enemies is part of a behind-the-scenes deal Thaksin may have struck to allow his return.

Pheu Thai has denied Thaksin's involvement in its bid to form a government and the former leader has for months denied conspiring with the generals who led coups against him and sister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2006 and 2014.

"Tomorrow, at 9 a.m., I want permission to come back to live on Thai soil and breathe the air with other Thai people," Thaksin said on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

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