Bangkok: Former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra returned from 15 years in exile on Tuesday and was immediately jailed, but his time behind bars could be cut short with his party on the cusp of winning back power.
The divisive billionaire landed in a private jet at Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport at 9 am (0200 GMT), to be greeted by hundreds of noisy “Red Shirt” supporters waving banners and singing songs.
Thaksin, 74, emerged briefly from the terminal building to bow and offer a floral garland at a portrait of King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a mark of respect before waving to supporters.
More Red Shirts lined the streets as the former Manchester City owner was taken to the Supreme Court.
There, he was ordered to serve eight years for three convictions passed in his absence - one linked to his former Shin Corp company, another linked to a bank loan, and a lottery case.
But it was unclear how long Thaksin would stay in jail.
His return came just hours before parliament was expected to install business tycoon Srettha Thavisin as prime minister at the head of a coalition led by the Pheu Thai party - the latest incarnation of Thaksin’s political movement.
The timing of Thaksin’s return, with his party on the verge of assuming power, has led many to speculate that a backroom deal has been done to allow him leniency.
Loved and loathed
Thaksin has said he was willing to face justice in order to return home and see his grandchildren - though he has long maintained the criminal charges against him are politically motivated.
“I would like to request permission to return to live on Thai soil and share the air with my fellow Thai brothers and sisters,” he posted Monday on Twitter, which has been rebranded as X.
For all his long absence from the country, Thaksin remains Thailand’s most influential - and controversial - politician of modern times.
His career has included two election victories, defeat in a coup, criminal charges and the long years of self-imposed exile.
Loved by the rural poor for policies including cheap healthcare and the minimum wage, he is reviled by the pro-military and royalist elite who saw his rule as corrupt, authoritarian and a threat to Thai social order.
Parties linked to Thaksin have dominated elections since 2001 - until this year, when the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats.
Hundreds of Red Shirts waited through the night at the airport to welcome him with songs and banners - most decked out in their usual crimson colours.
“I am a real Red Shirt - whenever they want our support, I will always be there for them,” Karuna Wantang, 70, a retired bureaucrat from Nongkai, in the country’s northeast, told AFP.
“I don’t only like him but I love him.”
The Department of Corrections said Thaksin had been isolated in prison because of health problems, including heart and lung complaints, but his family would be able to visit him after five days.
Asked about the possibility of a royal pardon, the deputy director of the Department of Corrections Sithi Suthiwong told reporters the process took “about one to two months, if the documents are sufficient”.
“Relevant parties can apply for the royal pardon procedure. We will hand it to the justice minister and then the prime minister passes it to the Privy Council,” he said.
While Thaksin was being processed by the courts, his party formally nominated Srettha as its PM candidate in parliament, where a confirmation vote will be held around 3 pm.
MFP beat Pheu Thai into second place in May’s polls.
But MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat saw his bid to become PM sunk by conservative junta-appointed senators, who were spooked by his party’s determination to reform royal insult laws and tackle business monopolies.
After MFP dropped out, Pheu Thai cooked up a controversial coalition of a dozen parties including those of former coup-makers who ousted Thaksin’s sister Yingluck as PM in 2014.
The partnership has outraged many Pheu Thai supporters and Aaron Connelly, a Southeast Asian politics expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies said the party would expect a payoff.
“If he (Thaksin) doesn’t receive a royal pardon within a certain amount of time then they might begin to question whether they entered a coalition under false pretences,” he told AFP.