Football fans, especially those who are allergic to notion of foreign billionaires buying up clubs, will remember that name: Thaksin Shinawatra used to own Manchester City Football Club. On Sunday, his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party has won the national elections and she will now be Thailand’s new Prime Minister. This could potentially mean her brother's return to Thailand and an unbalancing of the already precarious Thai political seesaw. BY SIPHO HLONGWANE.
Beneath Thailand’s picturesque image as a holiday paradise these days lurks a bubbling, seething political undercurrent. It seems an obvious assertion to make now, what with the violent United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (Red Shirts) protests of 2010, but consider this stunning statistic: Shinawatra the elder was the first Thai prime minister to finish his full term in office.
He was eventually ousted by a military coup on 19 September 2006, while he was overseas. Shinawatra would go on to face charges of tax evasion, selling national assets off to foreign investors and becoming “unusually wealthy” while in office. Most serious of all for a Prime Minister in a monarchy, he was accused of lèse majesté, or offending the dignity of the sovereign. He has since flittered about the globe in self-imposed exile, living briefly in Germany, Cambodia, Dubai and England, while the Supreme Court in Thailand stripped his family of about R9.4 billion of his wealth that was still tied up in the south-east Asian country.
In another sense, Thaksin never really left Thailand. While in office, his Thai Rak Thai party was hugely popular in the poor rural areas after poverty in the country was reportedly halved during his incumbency. That administration also launched the country’s first universal healthcare system and a controversial drug suppression programme. It is a pattern repeated throughout the world in countries lead by populists.
That Thaksin supported and allegedly even bankrolled the Red Shirts is no secret. Even after the courts, a few of the wealthy elite and the subsequent governments had made it very plain to Thaksin that he was unwelcome in Thailand, characteristically, he wouldn’t go quietly. In October 2010, Foreign Policy named him one of “five bad exes” or previous incumbents who couldn’t stop interfering in their country’s affairs.
Photo: Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, greets reporters and supporters gathered at her party's headquarters after voting in general elections ended in Bangkok July 3, 2011. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck has now won a famous victory in the Thai national elections and is on the cusp of becoming the country’s first female prime minister. Her Pheu Thai party won a 263 out of a possible 500 seats according to the Thai Election Commission. The Red Shirts, which had supported her bid for power, were cautiously optimistic, after four victories they had won were turned down by the courts or nullified through political manoeuvring. Pithaya Pookaman, Pheu Thai’s foreign relations head said, “We learned from our lessons. If the people give us a landslide victory; if the people give us an overwhelming victory, I'm sure the people who are trying to derail the election, who are trying to prevent democracy from working in Thailand, will have to think very hard”.
Yingluck herself said of her victory, “I don't want to say its victory for me and the Pheu Thai party but people are giving me a chance and I will work to my best ability for the people.”
Could things still go pear-shaped? The main reason why Thaksin doesn’t live in Thailand is the military that shoved him out in the first place. The Red Shirts support Yingluck, but what of the military? According to the AFP, a General Wongsuwon said that the people had spoken clearly, so the military wouldn’t be getting involved in these elections. The Democrat Party of the outgoing prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has graciously accepted the election result.
So what could go wrong? The biggest fear now seems to be that Thaksin himself might decide to return to Thailand. He is still very popular in the rural areas. The only people who seem to distrust him are the military and his fellow blue-bloods. Plus his sister is in power. He could perhaps feel that, like President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil riding into victory on the back of the wildly popular Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Yingluck owes her political victory to his own shine.
Watch: Yingluck Shinawatra on the campaign trail (Australian Networks)
In fact, the Thai situation isn't unique at all. It wouldn't be the first time ever that a populist leader who falls out of favour and is hounded out of the country returns to influence via a younger family member. Alberto Fujimori served as Peru's president from 1990 to 2000, and despite huge popular support, he was accused of various crimes, including crimes against humanity and corruption. He fled the country in 2000 and he spent some time in his ancestral home in Japan, before he was arrested in Chile in 2005. Fujimori is currently serving a 25-year jail sentence for human rights violations for his government's battles against leftist guerrillas in the 90s. In June 2011, his daughter Keiko narrowly lost her bid for the Peruvian presidency in a run-off against Ollanta Humala.
A man who could possibly be described as the greatest embodiment of South American populism, the Argentine president Juan Peron returned to his home country after an 18-year exile in 1973. Héctor Cámpora had just won the elections and welcomed Peron back into the country, even though the former leader had been hounded out by protests. Cámpora quickly resigned and called new elections, this time with Peron running, and the populist leader was elected, ruling Argentina once again before his death in 1974. He was immediately succeeded by his wife Isabel Martínez de Perón, who was overturned by a military coup in 1976.
Thaksin's return to soft power by proxy of his sister's presidency wouldn't come as a surprise. According to Reuters, Thaksin has already stated that he has no interest in running for Prime Minister ever again. “I don't want to be Prime Minister,” he told journalists in Dubai. “I've been with the party too long. I want to retire.” But he wants to be back home by as soon as this December to attend a daughter’s wedding. He would have to negotiate with very powerful political opponents in order to do so, by his own admission, including King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Thaksin’s involvement with the Thai Red Shirts means that he has been painted as a republican, a claim he has repeatedly rejected.
Watch: Thai opposition wins by a landslide (Al Jazeera English)
For Thaksin, one question seems too silly to even entertain – will his sister object to his presence in the country? He considers her to be his clone. “That means that her attitude, her thinking and culture are very similar to me,” he once said of her. The patronage is heavily implied.
Then there’s the small matter of Thaksin having been found guilty of conflict of interest in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison by the Thai Supreme Court. He’ll have to deal with that too if he wants to return. Nobody knows what would happen if a populist leader, with a still-vocal support in the provinces would have to spend time in jail. It probably wouldn’t be pretty – last year, 91 people were killed when the military quashed a popular uprising against the Democratic Party.
In 2008, Thaksin made a solid profit when he sold the English football club Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi after he was unable to continue funding the club when his assets were frozen in Thailand.
“I don't have much money left," he told reporters. He has only about R6.5 billion left of his former telecommunications empire to tide him over, he said. Thought it must be remembered, he does have a history of understating his wealth.
“The government stole my money. (Now) I invest in mining, gold, platinum and coal. I think the price of gold will be increasing and by this year will probably go to $1,600 (per ounce),” he said.
Ever the wheeler and dealer, we can be pretty sure that Thaksin will return to Thailand if he fancies his chances. His sister’s political career be damned. DM
- Thaksin party wins Thai elections in Al Jazeera English;
- Democrats sweep Phuket in the Phuket News;
- Phuket count latest: Yingluck wins landslide, Phuket remains Democract in Phuket Wan;
- Exiled Thaksin seeks December return to Thailand in Reuters;
- Thailand army accepts Thaksin sister election win in BBC News;
- Thaksin Shinawatra’s shadow over sister’s poll victory in BBC News;
- Profile: Thaksin Shinawatra in BBC News.
Main photo: Thailand's former premier Thaksin Shinawatra gestures as he speaks to journalists outside his home in Dubai, after Puea Thai Party's Yingluck Shinawatra announced her coalition in Bangkok July 4, 2011. Exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin said on Monday he had no wish to become prime minister again in the wake of a landslide election victory for his sister's opposition party. Thaksin, a billionaire twice elected premier, was ousted in a 2006 coup. REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh.