Ousted Thai leader plots long-ball return

 Times Online

December 16, 2007

Michael Sheridan in Bangkok

Sky interview with Thaksin Shinawatra on Manchester City bid

HALF a world away from their home turf, Manchester City are vying with Everton as Premier League clubs become political footballs in Thailand’s first general election since a military coup last year.

Since being ousted, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, has bought Manchester City and is turning his £81m acquisition into a trophy to win hearts and minds among Thai voters from his exile in Britain. Thaksin has used the club’s prestige among football-crazy Thais to stage a comeback, as the country prepares for a general election that will restore civilian rule next Sunday.

He dispatched Sven-Goran Eriksson, City’s manager, to Bangkok a few weeks ago to announce that City were signing three well known Thai players and setting up a football academy. For good measure, Eriksson said he found his proprietor “nothing short of amazing”.

Thaksin himself appeared in a video to declare piously that he hoped the generals would allow the kind of free and fair elections that his government had overseen. “What matters to me is that all Thai people are able to vote in a democratic election so that, when I’m able to return to Thailand with my family, it will be to a stable and prospering democracy,” he said.

Within days Thaksin’s opponents cried foul and responded by bringing Everton on to the field. The city of Bangkok, which is controlled by the Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party, said it had signed staff from Everton to coach promising young players and to set up football schools in the capital.

It claimed that the deal had been long in the making, but to Thai sports commentators it smacked of electoral panic, as Thaksin’s charisma and money appeared to be gaining the upper hand in the election – even though he and 110 of his party faithful are banned from politics.

Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais), won two sweeping election victories and retains huge popular support among the rural poor. But his government was beset by allegations of corruption and rights abuses after 2,000 people were killed in a “war on drugs” and dozens of Thai Muslims were killed by security forces in the troubled south of the country.

Prosecutors are seeking his extradition from Britain in a series of complex financial cases arising from the £1 billion sale of his telecoms company to the investment arm of the Singapore government. But they have yet to produce a definitive indictment.

Thaksin and his wife Poja-marn also face criminal charges connected with a land deal that they say are false and politically motivated. Thai Rak Thai was dissolved after the tanks rolled into Bangkok on September 16 last year and the military took power. But its supporters have rallied under the banner of the People’s Power party, which is seen as a front for Thaksin’s comeback.

They wildly applauded the exiled leader’s son, Panthongtae, and his mother-in-law when they appeared at a rally last week. The gulf between Thailand’s royalist elite, who largely backed the coup, and its younger, poorer electorate is playing in Thaksin’s favour. The People’s Power party, fronted by a right-wing veteran named Samak Sun-daravej, is predicted to win more seats than any other party in the 480-seat lower house.

Against Samak, the Thai establishment is fielding Abhisit Vejjaviva, a smooth, photogenic 43-year-old who was educated at Eton and Oxford. He leads the Democrat party, which is respected for its competence and relative lack of corruption; but he is untested in the rough and tumble of Thai politics. He has, however, made it known that he, too, adores football and is a fan of Newcastle United, in whose home town he was born.

Meanwhile, Thaksin is playing it his way. In an interview on Thai television last week he said there was only one important date in his calendar. “We’re looking forward to playing Liverpool on December 29,” he said, cracking the famous Thai smile.

Ousted Thai leader plots long-ball return – Times Online

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