Thaksin and Move Forward: Downplaying Their Problems?

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Thaksin and Move Forward: Downplaying Their Problems?

The controversial release of the former prime minister has presented the progressive MFP with a political opportunity.

Thaksin and Move Forward: Downplaying Their Problems?
Credit: Depositphotos

Through the twists and turns of Thai politics, the impact of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra looks enduring.

To recap, billionaire businessman-turned-politician Thaksin comfortably won two elections in the early 2000s. He achieved brisk economic growth following the Asian Financial Crisis but faced criticisms of meshing business interests with politics. Thaksin was toppled in a coup on corruption charges, fled overseas, and played puppeteer in a tug-of-war against military-backed conservative elements. Six months ago, Thaksin returned to Thailand after 16 years in self-exile and quickly found his jail term reduced from eight years to just one. Yet he didn’t spend a day behind bars, having been transferred to a police hospital in a flash for “health reasons.” Last week, he was freed on parole.

These twists happened because Thaksin reached some sort of compromise with the old guard. Clearly not coincidentally, Thaksin’s homecoming on August 22 last year marked the day when Thailand’s current prime minister, Srettha Thavisin from the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai Party, received a parliamentary stamp of approval. The Pheu Thai-fronted “neoconservative” pact has an apparent mission: to block the progressive movement spearheaded by the Move Forward Party (MFP), Pheu Thai’s former ally and the 2023 election champion that ended up leading the opposition.

As The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio wrote, Thaksin getting off scot-free has infuriated “both royalist conservatives, who have struggled to accept the rehabilitation of a leader that they opposed for so many years, and progressives, who have complained about unequal treatment for the wealthy former leader.”

Then there are concerns about shadow governance, which are already widespread because most key policies of the Srettha administration can be traced back to Thaksin. Examples include pro-poor economic initiatives (namely the digital wallet and farmer debt moratorium), the land bridge megaproject, and the CEO-governor model. Pheu Thai is also formally led by Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn. Still, Thaksin’s newfound freedom has elevated the “one country, two (or more) leaders” narrative to a new height.

Shortly after settling back into the Shinawatra family estate, Thaksin welcomed a private visit from former Cambodian premier Hun Sen. Although the two ex-leaders’ longstanding friendship transcends politics, the overt display of the visit, which occurred amid the Thai-Cambodian energy exploration talks in disputed waters in the Gulf of Thailand, combined with Thaksin’s status as a parolee who’s supposedly seriously ill, has raised eyebrows.

Srettha appeared at Thaksin’s residence on Saturday. Pro-conservative party bigwigs like Anutin Charnvirakul of Bhumjaithai and Varawut Silpa-archa of Chartthaipattana are openly expressing their intentions to visit Thaksin as well. More politicians, both domestically and internationally, are undoubtedly queuing up at the Shinawatra headquarters, further complicating the Srettha government’s challenge of asserting its independence from Thaksin’s domination.

For the shunned MFP, now teetering on the edge of dissolution due to its bold approach to Thailand’s lese-majeste law, the Thaksin saga offers a strategic advantage. It provides excellent material with which to stoke public discontent and solidify the equality-seeking MFP (or its reincarnations) as the preeminent choice for disillusioned voters across the entire political spectrum.

The MFP certainly didn’t miss the chance. An official statement expressing doubts about the government’s handling of Thaksin and calling for equal justice for all was issued, and the party is hammering home the notion that Thailand has more than one prime minister.

It’s nonetheless worth noting that the MFP, in its statement, made sure to include an expression of sympathy toward coup-deposed Thaksin for not receiving “fair treatment in terms of democratic principles,” which subsequently led to “significant questioning by the public regarding the fairness of his legal case, the legal process, and the penalties imposed on him.” Some observers may be tempted to call this a distraction from the current problem.

Indeed, the MFP has been criticized for being lenient toward Thaksin’s case. The criticism isn’t far-fetched as the MFP was uncharacteristically quiet during the months Thaksin was in hospital detention. There were some jabs, but they weren’t the usual punches the public would expect from the normally strident MFP on matters of corruption and rights.

The MFP’s downplaying of Thaksin’s case is up to interpretation. It could simply be that the MFP, recognizing Thaksinite Pheu Thai as an indispensable ally for future “pro-democracy” coalition, is letting things slide to win Pheu Thai’s favor.

Or something else could be at play. After all, prominent figures associated with the MFP and its now-defunct predecessor, the Future Forward Party (FFP), have connections to Thaksin. Particularly noteworthy is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the charismatic former FFP leader and perhaps the real commander of the progressive wing, whose family has both personal and business links to the Shinawatras. Rumors began circulating last July, amid the post-election coalition talks, that Thanathorn met Thaksin in Hong Kong to discuss a political deal. While the specifics of any deal remain in the realm of speculation, Thanathorn acknowledged the encounter, much to the chagrin of his progressive peers who had sought to keep this under wraps.

What’s more striking, as observed by Thai media outlets such as Thai PBS and Krungthep Turakij, is Thanathorn publicly calling Pheu Thai “a friend” and saying that Thailand’s future hinges on two parties: the MFP and Pheu Thai. This would be unquestionable if the two were formally aligned. But now that they are technically on opposing sides, Thanathorn’s remarks have somewhat made it more difficult for the MFP to effectively scrutinize Pheu Thai.

All these developments ultimately indicate that like tainted older parties, the youth-led MFP is not immune to backroom political bargaining.