Thaksin to end Thai exile in February, says ally

Guardian Unlimited

Ian MacKinnon in Bangkok, Haroon Siddique and agencies
Friday December 21, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

Thaksin Shinawatra watches his club, Manchester City, earlier this month. His lawyer says it is unsafe for him to return to Thailand
Thaksin Shinawatra watches a Manchester City match. Photograph: Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images

The former Thailand prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless coup last year, is to return from exile in February, a political ally said today.

Chalerm Yoobamrung, a parliamentary candidate of the People Power party (PPP), made the announcement at a campaign rally ahead of Sunday’s general election, which will restore the country to democracy.

The PPP is led by Thaksin’s loyalists who regrouped after his Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded by court order earlier this year.

Chalerm said Thaksin, who was abroad at the time of the September 2006 coup, had informed him in a phone call last night that he would return on February 14.

The 58-year-old billionaire tycoon, who bought Manchester City football club while in exile, will be following Sunday’s proceedings from Hong Kong.

Even before today’s announcement, the former prime minister had cast a long shadow over the contest.

Thaksin’s £81.6m buy-up of the Premier League club has kept him in the spotlight among football-mad Thais, and last month’s high-profile purchase of three Thai footballers – with manager Sven-Goran Eriksson rubber-stamping the deal in Bangkok – had a whiff of politicking about it.

Political rivals in the Democrat party, which is in a neck-and-neck race with the PPP, have wrongly suggested the trio will take the field against Aston Villa tomorrow to drive home the point. However, transfer rules prevent them from playing until the new year.

Still, their fears emphasise Thaksin’s enduring potency. Voters in Thailand’s poor north and north-east – strongholds of Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai – appear set to back the PPP, which assumed much of its predecessors’ populist platform and many of its personnel.

Polls in Thailand suggest the PPP, led by the veteran right-winger Samak Sundaravej, could become the biggest party and may even win an outright majority.

A clear PPP victory would pose a headache for the junta. The coup’s naked aim was to get Thaksin out, and corruption allegations – which have made little headway – were supposed to keep him out. But Samak has pledged to allow Thaksin to return to clear his name.

Sunai Thasuk, of Human Rights Watch, believes army surveillance, tantamount to harassment in PPP strongholds, shows the junta has set its face against a PPP victory, which could spawn trouble.

“If the PPP wins and the junta refuses to recognise the voters’ will – either using the election commission or some other dirty tricks – then they would naturally be upset,” he said. “There’s bound to be some reaction. That would put Thailand in a very, very dangerous position.”

Should the PPP come out on top but fail to secure a majority, analysts believe the military will exert pressure on smaller parties to join a Democrat coalition led by the Eton and Oxford-educated 43-year-old Abhisit Vajjajiva, a suave figure favoured by Bangkok’s urban elite.

“We’re not going to have certainty after the election,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies. “We have deep-seated polarisation in the electorate that will only by magnified by the election results.”

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