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Thailand's divisive ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra readies return during political turmoil


BANGKOK (AP) — As Thailand grapples with the unexpectedly difficult task of naming a new prime minister, the most controversial former holder of the job, billionaire populist Thaksin Shinawatra, plans to return home next month from years of self-imposed exile, his daughter announced Wednesday.

Thaksin’s planned Aug. 10 return, confirmed in a Facebook posting by his daughter Paetongtarn on the occasion of his 74th birthday, comes at a politically sensitive time, as the Pheu Thai party, regarded as the main vehicle for his political interests, is seeking to win enough support in Parliament to have one of its leaders become Thailand’s 30th prime minister.

Earlier this month, opposition from the conservative appointed Senate, which together with the elected House of Representatives votes to select the prime minister, blocked the nominee from the progressive Move Forward Party, the top finisher in May’s election, from winning the job.

Thaksin, by promoting unprecedented populist policies and using the fortune he made in the telecommunications sector to build his own Thai Rak Thai party, was elected prime minister in 2001 and easily reelected in 2005, but was ousted by a military coup in 2006. He was accused of corruption and abuse of power and of disrespecting the country’s monarchy.

He fled Thailand in 2008 to escape a prison term in several criminal cases, which he decried as politically motivated, and still could be jailed for more than a decade on his return. A government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was also ousted by a military coup in 2014. She also faced criminal charges and fled into exile.

His daughter Paetongtarn is one of Pheu Thai’s three candidates who can be nominated to become prime minister.

In May, Thaksin tweeted that he would like to come home before his birthday, but Paetongtarn said earlier this month that he decided on a delay in consideration of the post-election uncertainty, as his return could become a political issue.

“We’re both happy and worried, but we always respect your decision,” Paetongtarn wrote in Wednesday's Facebook post.

Thai news outlets reported that during a celebration of Thaksin’s birthday by Pheu Thai party supporters in the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, the former prime minister spoke briefly in a video call to thank them and say he would return to Thailand “in the coming days.”

Thaksin has not returned earlier because of the belief that he would not be treated fairly by the government, backed by the military, which has never reconciled with him since ousting him in 2006.

The delay in naming a new prime minister is linked to royalist concerns.

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, was the first nominee considered by Parliament as prime minister. He pulled together an eight-party coalition that holds 312 seats in the 500-member lower house. But confirming a new prime minister requires a majority vote by both the House and 250-member Senate, and Pita’s initial bid on July 13 fell short by more than 50 votes, largely because only 13 senators backed him.

Members of the Senate said they would not vote for Pita because of his party’s call for the reform of a law that makes it illegal to defame Thailand’s royal family. Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, has been abused as a political weapon. The Senate’s members were appointed by a military government — not elected — and like the army, see themselves as guardians of traditional conservative royalist values.

A new vote for prime minister had been scheduled for Thursday, but was postponed to see if the Constitutional Court would rule on whether it was legal to deny Pita an opportunity to be renominated, while Pheu Thai struggled to seek backing of its nominee.