Thailand’s Srettha elected PM as ally Thaksin returns from exile and goes to jail
BANGKOK – Thai property mogul Srettha Thavisin was elected prime minister after a decisive win in a parliamentary vote on Tuesday as his party’s fugitive figurehead Thaksin Shinawatra made a historic homecoming after years in exile and was taken straight to jail.
The victory by 60-year-old Srettha paves the way for a new coalition government, ending weeks of uncertainty and stalemate in parliament after an election 100 days ago that threatened to weaken the political clout of the country’s powerful military.
Srettha, who was thrust into the spotlight just a few months ago by the populist heavyweight Pheu Thai, won the support from two thirds of parliament in a vote that followed hours of hysteria in Thailand over the long-awaited return of Thaksin from self-imposed exile.
“I will perform my duties to the best of my ability. I will work tirelessly to improve the livelihood of all Thais,” Srettha told reporters at Pheu Thai’s headquarters, his voice drowned out by supporters chanting “Srettha, Srettha”.
Thaksin received a rapturous reception after he arrived on his jet at a Bangkok airport early on Tuesday, where he briefly met Pheu Thai lawmakers before being escorted by police to the Supreme Court then to a prison to serve a sentence of eight years for abuse of power and conflicts of interest.
Political neophyte Srettha, a former president of luxury property developer Sansiri, will be tasked with forming and holding together a potentially fragile coalition that includes parties created by the royalist military, which overthrew Pheu Thai governments in 2006 and 2014 coups.
Among those ousted was Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon and owner of Premier League football club Manchester City, who was accused by the army of corruption, cronyism and disloyalty to the powerful monarchy.
He fled abroad and was sentenced to jail in absentia in 2008 and sister Yingluck Shinawatra suffered an almost identical fate as prime minister a few years later. Both say the allegations against them were politically motivated.
The return of Thailand’s most famous politician and Srettha’s surprisingly smooth ascent to the top job will add to speculation that the influential Thaksin had struck a deal with his enemies in the military and establishment for his safe return and possibly, an early release from jail.
Thaksin and Pheu Thai have rejected that.
Tuesday’s events were the latest twist in a nearly two-decade power struggle between the Shinawatra family and its business allies, and a nexus of royalists, generals and old money families that have long wielded influence over politics and the economy.
As he emerged from the airport wearing a black suit, red tie and yellow lapel pin bearing the royal insignia, Thaksin clasped his hands in a traditional “wai” greeting to the crowd before kneeling and bowing in respect in front of a portrait of the king and queen.
Thaksin is still loved and loathed in equal measure in Thailand and his return overshadowed the vote for prime minister, with related hashtags top-trending on social media and the country gripped by blow-by-blow media coverage of his celebrated arrival and his prompt imprisonment.
Hundreds of red-shirted supporters carrying banners gathered at the airport, the court and outside the prison to greet him, many chanting “PM Thaksin”.
A former policeman who started a business empire selling computers, Thaksin won the hearts and loyalty of millions of working-class Thais with populist giveaways ranging from cash handouts and village loans to farm subsidies and universal healthcare.
But his brash approach, huge popularity and support for a new wave of capitalist upstarts put him at odds with powerful elites, triggering an intractable political battle that is still being played out today.
Though Thaksin had repeatedly reneged on promises to return home, he remains hugely popular among his supporters.
“No matter which land he’s in, wherever he goes, I love only Thaksin and always have,” said Boonying Pim-Makaed, from the northeastern province of Loei.
“I’m so glad that he’s back.”