Thai Ex-Prime Minister Returns From Exile, Adding to Political Chaos

Thai Ex-Prime Minister Returns From Exile, Adding to Political Chaos

Thaksin Shinawatra, the former premier who was ousted in a coup and has been living in exile since 2006, returned to Bangkok for the first time in 15 years on Tuesday, adding to the country’s political drama on a day that Parliament was to vote for a new prime minister.

Mr. Thaksin was living in self-imposed exile in part to avoid facing corruption and abuse of power charges affiliated with his telecom business. While in exile, he shuttled between England, Hong Kong and Dubai, avoiding Thailand for fear of not receiving a fair trial. He was tried for most of these cases in absentia and found guilty of several charges.

Mr. Thaksin’s private jet arrived Tuesday morning at the Don Muang International Airport in Bangkok. And his landing comes after months of a political logjam that has left the country without a clear leadership candidate after the top vote-winner in the May general election was functionally blocked from office by allies of the country’s military and monarchy.

His return reflects the degree of confidence that he has in his party, Pheu Thai, to form a government and elect a new prime minister this week. Srettha Thavisin, a real estate tycoon and a close ally of Mr. Thaksin, has been nominated for the job by Pheu Thai, but it remains unclear if he will win the post once voting is done on Tuesday.

At a news conference on Sunday, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Mr. Thaksin’s youngest daughter, said her father would not be involved in politics once he returned to Thailand. But few Thai voters believe that claim.

Mr. Thaksin, a charismatic 74-year-old billionaire, is the founder of Pheu Thai, which still looks to him for guidance, according to party members. His policies remain popular in Thailand, where many Thais recall his populist agenda fondly, particularly his $1 health care program and the disbursement of loans to farmers when he was prime minister from 2001 to 2006.

But more recently, Pheu Thai supporters have felt betrayed by the party’s moves to partner with the military in order to form a new government and elect a prime minister.

Earlier this month, Pheu Thai abandoned its main coalition partner, the progressive Move Forward Party, which won the general election in May. Move Forward had refused to withdraw its pledge to revise a law that criminalizes criticism of the powerful Thai monarchy, an institution fiercely backed by conservatives and the military.

Until now, Pheu Thai had vowed never to partner with military-backed parties in Parliament.

Despite his influence, Mr. Thaksin no longer has the same hold over the Thai public that he did a decade ago. A generation of young Thais see him as a self-serving politician obsessed with orchestrating an elaborate homecoming. In his absence, other charismatic figures like Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, have risen, appealing to an electorate disillusioned with the politics of the old.

In 2008, Mr. Thaksin made a brief return to Thailand after his political allies won an election. During that time, he and his then-wife, Potjaman Na Pombejra, were tried on a conflict of interest case over a plot of land that was sold to Ms. Potjaman. He fled to London before the guilty verdict was handed down.