Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra speaks to Reuters during an interview in Singapore
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra speaks to Reuters during an interview in Singapore February 23, 2016. Reuters

Adored by millions and reviled by many, Thai billionaire ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has towered over his country's turbulent politics for more than two decades - even though he's lived mostly in self-exile since the army overthrew him in 2006.

Now, Thaksin's announcement of plans to return to Thailand in July has caused a stir as voters prepare to go to the polls in a general election on Sunday, with implications for the vote and the inevitable horse-trading afterwards to form a government, analysts say.

Thaksin's daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, is the leading prime ministerial candidate for the opposition Pheu Thai party made up of loyalists to the populist movement that first swept her father to power in 2001.

But if her father is serious about coming home - some dismiss his latest vow as a play for votes on Sunday - it could complicate what many had presumed would be a post-election scramble by Pheu Thai to try to form a coalition with other opposition parties to end military domination of politics.

That's because any homecoming would require Thaksin - who faces prison from convictions he says were politically motivated after his ouster - to make a deal with at least some elements of the pro-military establishment that has ousted him and his family from the prime minister's office three times.

"The announcement could hint that Pheu Thai is seeking a deal that could see them join up with their former rivals in order to get Thaksin home," said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University.

Either way, Thaksin has again put himself at the centre of a political scene that has at times over the years brought bloody chaos with rival street protests between his supporters, who loved him for populist policies, and his opponents, who despised him as a brash, corrupt opportunist.

Along the way, the army has staged two coups - the latest in 2014 - and courts have intervened to remove pro-Thaksin governments and dissolve parties loyal to him. Yet, his reconstituted parties keep on winning elections - five and counting.


In Sunday's vote, Pheu Thai is again widely expected to win the most seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives - but because of military-written rules, it could struggle to form a coalition because a 250-seat Senate appointed during military rule also gets a vote for the prime minister.

Those Senate votes were key to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha - who in 2014 seized power from a government that had been led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck, and led a military junta for five years - retaining power in the last election four years ago, even though Pheu Thai won the most seats.

This time, Pheu Thai is polling strongly along with the progressive, youth-oriented, Move Forward party.

Together, the two opposition parties could get as many as two-thirds of lower house seats, putting them tantalisingly close to the 75% needed to overcome the Senate's 250 votes.

And with multiple other parties in play, and some Senate members recently showing a willingness to defy the government, the numbers could add up to a Pheu Thai-Move Forward coalition that excludes pro-military parties.

As recently as last week, Pheu Thai's Paetongtarn vowed she would never join with pro-military parties and expressed a willingness to joining with Move Forward in a coalition.


But bringing her father home may ultimately be the deciding factor for Pheu Thai, and that would force it into a deal with the establishment.

"For Thaksin to come home, there has to be a deal. He can't just walk into Thailand," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak a political scientiest at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

"Post election, Pheu Thai will be biding its time and looking for a deal. That's why I think the likelihood of Pheu Thai going with Move Forward is very slim."

As for why conservatives might be willing to make a deal and allow the man they've reviled for decades to return, Thitinan said that after so much time and turbulence, many in the establishment had concluded that it is no longer worth fighting Thaksin.

In fact, he said, the populist policies that were once seen as so radical have been mainstreamed into almost all parties including pro-military ones.

"His opponents and others will be thinking - if Thailand wants to get over this hump, if Thailand is to find peace and stability again, it has to settle the Thaksin conundrum," Thitinan said.

He said he could envision a deal that allowed Thaksin to return in exchange for minimal jail time and a promise not to run for office.

And for the pro-royalist, pro-military establishment, analyst Titipol said the threat that Thaksin had for so long represented was being replaced by Move Forward, with its even more progressive proposals that include calling for the amendment of laws against criticising the king.

"They hate Move Forward Party more. They're seeing it as more of a threat due to their reformist agendas," Titipol said.

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)