Thaksin’s desire to return to Thailand was well known. He has previously announced over twenty attempts to return, and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra’s infamous attempt to grant him an amnesty during her premiership in 2014 triggered the military coup that shut his Pheu Thai Party out of power for nine years.
Ironically, it was the Pheu Thai’s first election loss in two decades at the May general election that created the conditions for Thaksin to return. The victorious Move Forward Party’s controversial proposals to reform Thailand’s monarchy and military made its presence in government unacceptable to the conservative establishment. Having finished second, the Thaksin-affiliated Pheu Thai became a necessary partner to lock Move Forward out of power.
There is ample evidence of this agreement. In the weeks leading up to Thaksin’s return, Pheu Thai ejected Move Forward from the government coalition and broke its own pledge to not partner with the military-aligned United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath parties.
On the same day of Thaksin’s return, Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate Srettha Thavisin was elected, notably with the support of a large number of senators believed to be aligned with former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Srettha’s first port of call after his appointment was a transition meeting with Prayut, a rare scene between Thailand’s incoming and outgoing leaders.
Yet Thaksin’s lenient treatment has come at a heavy political cost. The ‘government of national reconciliation’ that Pheu Thai has established faces several headwinds. Pheu Thai’s dependence on its coalition partners means that it will have to contend with several veto players. While it retains control of most of the economy-related ministries, Pheu Thai was forced to grant some of the most powerful and well-funded ministries, such as the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Education, to parties in the former Prayut coalition.
Pheu Thai has also immolated its brand as a pro-democracy party, leaving its future viability as an election-winning machine in doubt. It remains to be seen if national attitudes will catch up to elite machinations. Despite the rhetoric of ‘moving past political conflict’, it is unlikely that voters truly desire this government of national reconciliation. Conservative voters who have long opposed Thaksin are unlikely to be able to stomach supporting Pheu Thai, while progressive voters no longer see Pheu Thai as a credible option to deliver reform. Pheu Thai’s popularity has starkly decreased since the general election — if a new election were held today, it could fall into third place.
Having broken its political pledges, Pheu Thai will hope its populist promises can keep the party afloat. Most importantly, Srettha will try to ensure that Pheu Thai follows through on its signature policy proposal of providing 10,000 baht (US$280) in ‘digital money’ to all citizens above the age of 16. While Pheu Thai argues this will act as much-needed economic stimulus, critics cry of thinly veiled vote-buying.
Yet whether such a large influx of cash will win over disaffected voters remains an open question. Judging by the poor performance of pro-Prayut parties in the election, the Prayut administration’s multiple rounds of cash handouts and economic stimulus schemes did little to earn the previous government lasting popularity.
Meanwhile, Move Forward will likely retain its popularity in opposition. It has remained undamaged by the unseemly process of political dealmaking that plagued Pheu Thai and protected its own ideological purity. Despite failing to elect its former leader Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister, the party — or a successor if the party is ever dissolved — looks set to capitalise in the long term.
Thailand’s conservatives may hope that bringing Thaksin back will serve as a bulwark against this insurgent progressivism, but the heavy damage done to the Pheu Thai brand in the process may mean that even a proven election winner like Thaksin cannot turn the tide against this new force in Thai politics.
Mathis Lohatepanont is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan.