As the Old Prime Minister Returns, a New Prime Minister is Elected

There are few events in Thailand that could possibly overshadow the election of a new prime minister. The return of a former prime minister from his self-imposed time in exile is one of them. 

Thaksin Shinawatra was gone for fifteen years, but in many ways it never really felt like he had left. Even as there were exhortations to ‘get over Thaksin,’ and even as new actors emerged on the political stage, Thaksin always remained one of the central poles that Thai politics revolved around. 

Yesterday’s events have only reaffirmed Thaksin’s centrality in our politics, with both his return to Bangkok and the election of his ally Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.

The return of Thaksin Shinawatra

Thaksin had badly miscalculated, time and time again, in his various bids to either return his party to power or to return home personally. The Amnesty Bill proposed by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government, which would have absolved him of all his corruption convictions, ended up precipitating nine years of rule by Thaksin’s nemesis, General Prayut Chan-o-cha. The offshoot Thai Raksa Chart Party’s decision to nominate Princess Ubolratana for the premiership in 2019 ended in the dissolution of that party. And Pheu Thai ran a massively disappointing election campaign this year that cumulated in a Thaksinite party’s first election loss in the past two decades.

Ironically, however, it was this latest failure that set the ball in motion for Thaksin’s return. 

The emergence of the Move Forward Party created a mutual enemy over which the long-warring “yellow” and “red” camps could unite to fight. Pheu Thai leader Cholanan Srikaew finally admitted in parliament that Pheu Thai would never have joined hands with Move Forward if not for the current constitution. It only underlines the reality that the two parties have more different worldviews than their bases of support may have been led to believe during past four years.

Pheu Thai’s ejection of Move Forward from the coalition government created the necessary conditions for reconciliation, previously thought unachievable, between Thaksinite politicians and the very people that had vociferously called for the ouster of the ‘Thaksin regime’ all those years back. And right on cue, Thaksin has returned, on the very day of the vote that would propel this government into power.

Thaksin’s decision to come back before, and not after, the result of the prime minister vote was revealed had left many scratching their heads. Why would he risk it, when he cannot be sure if a sympathetic government will soon take power? But in hindsight, given the overwhelming endorsement that Pheu Thai candidate Srettha Thavisin would receive in the vote for prime minister later in the day, it now appears that Thaksin had returned not only in a sign of goodwill, but in a show of confidence. 

The election of Srettha Thavisin 

Thaksin’s confidence paid off. Srettha Thavisin was elected prime minister by a joint meeting of the National Assembly that same afternoon, with 482 total votes — far outstripping the 375 he needed.

Srettha’s win resembles in many ways the victories of previous prime ministers with ties to Thaksin. He owes this win less to his own electoral prowess and more to the nostalgia among Pheu Thai voters for their spiritual leader. He appears to lack a strong power base within the party, having been parachuted in from the world of business with no previous political experience; thus it is likely that he is beholden to the party’s powers that be. 

At the same time, Srettha will also enter office as a far weaker political player than previous Palang Prachachon and Pheu Thai prime ministers. 

For one, he no longer leads a political juggernaut with an air of invincibility; instead, he is the nominee of the second biggest party in parliament which just immolated the party brand with a bonanza of pledge-breaking that probably, at best, sits a poorly with many supporters. He lacks the Shinawatra pedigree of Yingluck, and has yet to build up the political skills honed over decades by Samak Sundaravej. Having largely avoided debates or even a speech to parliament, whether or not he is adept at connecting with people remains largely to be seen. 

This may perhaps be why Thaksin’s return, even as an incarcerated former prime minister, is bigger news than Srettha becoming the new prime minister. Srettha will have to do much more to prove that he is in control of the government that he will now get to lead. 

At the same time, however, both men will have their work cut out for them in showing that they are also in control of their destiny. Thaksin surely did not come back just to sit tight in jail for eight years; what his reconciliation with his conservative foes will do for him remains to be proven. While not quite fully a hostage, given that Pheu Thai now runs the government, he can no longer operate as freely as he did previously. 

Meanwhile, in Srettha’s coalition, the Pheu Thai party is actually numerically outnumbered by the parties from the previous Prayut coalition. What does that mean for Pheu Thai’s ability to pursue the policies it wants? Or for Pheu Thai’s previous promise that it would continue to pursue the progressive vision espoused by the defunct Move Forward-led coalition? 

It has been a dizzying period: the shock victory of Move Forward, the reconciliation of bitter enemies, the return of Thaksin. Move Forward’s election slogan had been “vote for Move Forward and Thailand will never be the same.” Indeed, since the election, Thailand has went through four months where decades happen. Move Forward did not take power, but the intense reaction has already produced a Thailand that will never be the same again.


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