2019/59, 10 July 2019
Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra made headlines in Thailand with a tweet last Sunday announcing his intention to celebrate his upcoming seventieth birthday on 26 July quietly with his family. No friends, and no political supporters, will be invited to mark the occasion with him in Dubai, his home in exile since 2008. After all, Dubai is rather hot, Thaksin reasoned; it would be inconvenient to do any outdoor partying when the temperature was almost 50 degrees centigrade.
Thaksin’s announcement immediately gave rise to widespread speculation that he finally intended to wash his hands of Thai politics for good. Observers drawing this conclusion have cited several reasons.
First, one of Thaksin’s most trusted lieutenants, Pongsak Taktapongpaisarn (alias “Hia Peng”), declined to serve as the secretary-general of the pro-Thaksin Phuea Thai Party. Instead, Pongsak announced the end of his own political career last Friday during celebrations of his sixty-ninth birthday in Bangkok, which many senior members of the party attended. Pongsak served as Thaksin’s industry minister and transport minister in the early 2000s, and as energy minister in Yingluck Shinawatra’s cabinet during 2012-14. He is known as Thaksin’s “deal-maker”.
Second, for the first time since 2001, a pro-Thaksin party has in the aftermath of the 24 March polls been unable to take the lead in forming a government coalition following general elections. Moreover, the formula for apportioning party-list seats left the Phuea Thai Party with no seats in the lower House of Representatives for the senior members of the party on its list. Consequently, the party needs to form a new executive committee, composed of members of parliament elected to constituency seats.
Sompong Amornvivat, a member of parliament for Chiang Mai, will become the Phuea Thai Party’s leader. He will also serve as Leader of the Opposition in the lower house. Anudith Nakornthap, a member of parliament for Bangkok, will assume the post of secretary-general.
Thaksin took a big gamble – and lost – with the nomination of Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn, as the candidate for the premiership put forward by the Thai Raksa Chat Party — one of the Thaksinite electoral vehicles created to fight the March elections. The king’s objection to this nomination led to its annulment and to the dissolution of the party, for inappropriately trying to involve a senior member of the royal family in politics.
The king subsequently stripped Thaksin of all the royal decorations that he had received in his career as a police officer, businessman and politician. This move caused the former prime minister a serious loss of face. Worse still, April saw Thaksin slapped with a three-year jail term for his unlawful role in the Thai Ex-Im Bank’s loan of 4 billion baht to the Myanmar government to buy satellite equipment from a Thai company belonging to his family. Under the revised Thai laws on corruption and misconduct on the part of public office holders, this new sentence will not lapse. While Thaksin fled the country in 2008 to escape a jail term of two years for conflict of interest in authorising his wife to buy a plot of land in Bangkok in a government auction, the sentence lapsed after ten years, in 2018.
Thaksin’s sister Yingluck is also facing a five-year jail term that will not lapse. She fled the country in August 2017 and is reportedly staying with Thaksin in Dubai. Two more members of Thaksin’s family are also facing legal trouble: his 39-year-old son Panthongtae and another of the former premier’s sisters, Yaowapha Wongsawat.
Obviously Thaksin has few reasons to rejoice as his seventieth birthday approaches. But is he really going to quit political life for good? He has dropped similar hints in the past, but he has always found the allure of politics irresistible.
A second question is even more perplexing. What will Thai politics be like without Thaksin? For nearly two decades, Thailand has seen a bitter struggle between pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin sides. What will Thais fight over when Thaksin and his interest in power no longer catalyse Thai politics?
And finally, what will Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his party do to provide much-needed leadership to the new generation of Thai voters in the transformed political setting in which Thaksin’s retirement would result?
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
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