Thailand’s fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday set foot on Thai soil for the first time since 2008, returning from self-exile to prison just hours before his allies contest a parliamentary vote in a bid to form a government.
Thaksin, the billionaire figurehead of the populist juggernaut Pheu Thai Party, fled abroad 15 years ago before he was jailed in absentia for abuse of power, two years after the military toppled him in a coup, alleging corruption and disloyalty to the powerful monarchy, which he refutes.
Thaksin, 74, appeared briefly with family members at a private jet terminal at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport, smiling and waving to hundreds of supporters, before he was escorted in a police convoy to the Supreme Court, then taken to prison, where, the court said, he will serve eight years.
As he emerged from the airport wearing a black suit, red tie and yellow lapel pin bearing a royal insignia, Thaksin clasped his hands together and 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 vaunted arrival of Thailand’s most famous politician came as the lower house and military-appointed Senate convened ahead of a vote later on Tuesday on prime ministerial candidate Srettha Thavisin, a real estate mogul who was thrust into politics by Pheu Thai just a few months ago.
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, were blocked by conservative lawmakers, leaving heavyweight Pheu Thai to lead a new effort.
A winner of five elections over the past two decades, Pheu Thai, founded by the Shinawatra family, has agreed a contentious alliance including two parties backed by a military that overthrew governments led by Thaksin and sister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2006 and 2014 coups.
His return has prompted widespread speculation that Pheu Thai’s alliance with its old enemies in the military and the establishment is part of a behind-the-scenes deal to allow him to come back safely.
Srettha, 60, on Monday said Pheu Thai had not 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.