Former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been on the run since 2008, stepped foot on Thai soil for the first time on Tuesday after returning from self-exile to prison only hours before his supporters attempted to create a government by contesting a parliamentary vote.
Two years after the military overthrew him in a coup, Thaksin, the millionaire leader of the populist juggernaut Pheu Thai Party, went abroad 15 years prior to being imprisoned in absentia for abuse of power, which he refutes
Thaksin, 74, appeared with family at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport before being taken to the Supreme Court and sentenced to eight years in prison, Reuters reported.
He wore a black suit, red tie, and yellow lapel pin with royal insignia, bowed in a traditional “wai” greeting before a portrait of the king and queen.
Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, confirmed he had arrived safely and posted images on Facebook of a smiling Thaksin with his family, including seven grandchildren.
“Dad has returned to Thailand and has entered the legal process,” Paetongtarn said.
The much-anticipated appearance of Thailand’s most well-known politician occurred as the lower house and Senate, which was appointed by the military, gathered ahead of a vote later on Tuesday on Srettha Thavisin.
Srettha Thavisin is a real estate billionaire who was propelled into politics by Pheu Thai only a few months earlier.
Meanwhile, Thailand has been under a caretaker government since March and its new parliament has been deadlocked for weeks after the anti-establishment winner of a May election, Move Forward, was blocked by conservative lawmakers, leaving heavyweight Pheu Thai to lead a new effort.
Pheu Thai, founded by the Shinawatra family, has formed a controversial alliance with two parties, backed by the military, which overthrew governments led by Thaksin and sister Yingluck Shinawatra in the 2006 and 2014 coups.
This alliance has led to speculation that it is part of a covert deal to allow Thaksin’s return safely.
Srettha, 60, on Monday, said Pheu Thai had no choice but to partner with some rivals that it had earlier vowed not to work with.
“We are not lying to the people, but we have to be realistic,” said Srettha, who has the support of 317 lawmakers and needs 58 votes from the Senate to secure the requisite backing of half of the legislature.
Furthermore, Thaksin, who is loved by the rural poor for policies including cheap healthcare and the minimum wage, is reviled by the pro-military and royalist elite who saw his rule as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to Thai social order.
Parties linked to Thaksin have dominated elections since 2001 — until this year when the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats.
Hundreds of Red Shirts waited through the night at the airport to welcome him with songs and banners — most decked out in their usual crimson colours.
“I am a real Red Shirt — whenever they want our support, I will always be there for them,” Karuna Wantang, 70, a retired bureaucrat from Nongkai, in the country’s northeast, told AFP.
“I don’t only like him but I love him.”