Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin must continue putting up with perceptions that he is a proxy for Thaksin Shinawatra. 

Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s release on parole on Sunday (Feb 18) was the fulfilment of a decade-long dream. His Pheu Thai Party had last tried to bring him back from self-imposed exile in 2013-14, but that was swiftly thwarted  by the 2014 military coup. 

For a party long used to ruling the roost in the House of Representatives, the coup gave Pheu Thai a crucial lesson in politics: legislative force alone — no matter how large the parliamentary majority behind you — is not enough. In this case, Thaksin’s parliamentary majority could not bring him over the threshold of the conservative barricade and back into Thailand.

Pheu Thai were given this same lesson again last year when they saw the futility of partnering with the Move Forward Party (MFP). The MFP-led coalition failed to form a government after the May 2023 general election, despite more than three-fifths of the lower house on its side. 

For Pheu Thai, the message from the ruling elite was clear: any homecoming for Thaksin would have to be done on their terms. 

That Thaksin served almost all of his shortened jail term in the Police General Hospital and has been released on parole is possible only because the conservative elite has permitted it. And they would only have allowed it if they believed Thaksin no longer posed a serious threat to the interests of the military and monarchy, having agreed in an alleged political deal last year to work with the conservative parties to form the government. 


A liberated Thaksin will not change some political realities. His release merely formalises Pheu Thai’s 2011 slogan: “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. 

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin will have to continue putting up with perceptions that he is a proxy for the “real” prime minister, no matter how defiantly he defends his independence and authority. 

The conservatives’ distrust of Thaksin is also unlikely to suddenly dissipate, evidenced by fresh lese-majeste and computer crime charges brought against him in January – likely to remind him not to misbehave. 

A liberated Thaksin will, however, have implications for Pheu Thai’s ability to retain public support ahead of the next election in 2027, especially against the progressive-minded MFP. Pheu Thai will hope that Thaksin’s popularity – which is dwindling but still useful – will help restore the party’s credibility among moderate voters and stem the migration of support to the MFP. 

Thaksin’s release will also enable him to run a tighter ship and ensure party discipline for crucial legislative votes, such as a contentious special loan Bill to finance Pheu Thai’s digital wallet handout scheme.


Thaksin will also want to make use of his newfound freedom to ensure that Pheu Thai is fully behind his youngest daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra. She was made party chief last year, and thus in a position for the prime ministerial post sometime in the future. 

He does not appear to be in a hurry to remove Mr Srettha, though this could quickly change if Mr Srettha fails to get the party’s signature election pledge – the digital wallet handout scheme – pushed through. 

Thaksin’s release could revive speculation that the democratic parties could put in a more energetic attempt to sideline conservative parties, principally through a resurrected alliance between Pheu Thai and the MFP. 

The pro-military senators, which played a central role in blocking the MFP from forming the government last year, will end their terms in May, and the next Senate will not be able to participate in a vote for a prime minister. 

Pheu Thai and the MFP may be on different sides of the parliamentary aisle, but a secret meeting between MFP-aligned figure Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Thaksin in Hong Kong last year could yet bear fruit. 

There is also the possibility that snap elections could be called in the second half of 2024. If Pheu Thai and the MFP secure a majority of lower house seats to form a fully “liberal” government, the two parties could theoretically explore more radical institutional reforms to undo the legacy laid down by retired general and former prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s successive governments. 


Yet the perilous precipice on which the MFP now stands will likely convince Thaksin otherwise. The conservatives will not be blind to the possibility of a tie-up between the two largest political parties and are not taking any chances. 

The Constitutional Court’s January ruling against the MFP’s plan to reform the lese-majeste law has since been taken up by the Election Commission. It is an ominous sign that the MFP’s time may well be up very soon, in the tried-and-tested Thai tradition of political party dissolutions. 

Thaksin, for all of his former praise for the MFP’s tactics in the 2023 election, may not protest too much if the MFP’s untimely demise paves the way for Pheu Thai to be the big winner in 2027. That would help the party assert its claim to the prime ministerial post and for Ms Paetongtarn to step up gracefully, undisturbed by potential challengers such as the MFP’s ambitious Pita Limjaroenrat. 

Foreign investors and companies in Thailand have largely welcomed the relative political stability of the past few months, as this has had a direct impact on policy continuity and the timeliness of pro-investment regulatory reforms. These factors are especially crucial at a time when regional competition for foreign capital continues to heat up over emerging sectors like electric vehicles, critical minerals and the digital economy. 

Investors will be hoping that the government remains stable, which will give Thailand at least a fighting chance to catch up with regional frontrunners like Indonesia and Vietnam. 

The million-dollar question is, as reflected in Pheu Thai’s slogan, whether Thaksin is thinking of following the conservatives’ script or tearing it up. 


This article was originally published in CNA on 21 February 2023.

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