By Panu Wongcha-um, Napat Wesshasartar and Chayut Setboonsarng
BANGKOK (Reuters) -Thailand’s fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra made a historic homecoming on Tuesday and was escorted to jail after years in exile, on a day when an ally and fellow tycoon was elected prime minister after winning a parliamentary vote.
The 74-year-old Thaksin, the billionaire founder of the electoral juggernaut Pheu Thai, finally made good on promises to go back to Thailand after a run of 15 years in self-exile, stealing the limelight from real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin as he prevailed for their party in parliament.
The return of Thailand’s most famous politician was met with hysteria. Thaksin was given a rapturous welcome after arriving in Bangkok on his private jet before being escorted by police to the Supreme Court, then to a prison to serve eight years for abuse of power and conflicts of interest.
Srettha’s victory paves the way for the populist Pheu Thai to form a new coalition government, ending weeks of uncertainty and stalemate in parliament after an election 100 days ago that threatened to weaken the political clout of the Southeast Asian country’s powerful military.
Srettha, 60, a political neophyte and former president of luxury property developer Sansiri, was thrust into the spotlight just a few months ago and won the backing of two-thirds of parliament, an outcome that had been far from certain given the military’s influence among hundreds of lawmakers.
“I will perform my duties to the best of my ability. I will work tirelessly to improve the livelihood of all Thais,” the 6-foot-3-inch (1.92-metre) Srettha told reporters at Pheu Thai’s headquarters, his voice drowned out by supporters chanting “Srettha, Srettha”.
Srettha will be tasked with forming and holding together a potentially fragile coalition that includes parties created by the ultra-royalist army, which overthrew Pheu Thai governments in coups in 2006 and 2014.
Among those ousted was Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon and owner of Premier League football club Manchester City, who was accused by the military of corruption, cronyism and disloyalty to the monarchy.
He fled abroad and was sentenced to jail in absentia in 2008. His sister Yingluck Shinawatra suffered an almost identical fate as prime minister a few years later. Both say the allegations against them were politically motivated.
Thaksin’s return and Srettha’s surprisingly smooth ascent to the top job will add to speculation that the influential Thaksin had struck a deal with his foes in the military and political establishment for his safe return and, possibly, an early release from jail.
Thaksin and Pheu Thai have rejected such notions.
Tuesday’s events were the latest twist in a nearly two-decade power struggle between the Shinawatra family and its business allies on one side, and a nexus of royalists, generals and old money families that have long wielded influence over Thai governments and institutions.
As he emerged from the airport wearing a black suit, red tie and yellow lapel pin bearing the royal insignia, Thaksin clasped his hands in a traditional “wai” greeting to the crowd before kneeling and bowing in respect in front of a portrait of the king and queen.
Thaksin is still loved and loathed in equal measure in Thailand and hashtags about his return trended top on social media, with the country gripped by blow-by-blow coverage of his celebrated arrival and his prompt imprisonment.
Hundreds of red-shirted supporters carrying banners gathered at the airport, the court and outside the prison to greet him, many chanting “PM Thaksin”.
A former policeman who started a business empire selling computers, Thaksin was a mould-breaking premier who won the hearts and votes of millions of rural Thais with populist giveaways ranging from cash handouts and village loans to farm subsidies and universal healthcare.
But his huge popularity, his brash demeanour and support for a new wave of capitalist upstarts put him at odds with powerful elites and business networks, triggering an intractable political battle that is still being played out today.
Though Thaksin had repeatedly reneged on promises to return home, his supporters remain fiercely loyal to him.
“No matter which land he’s in, wherever he goes, I love only Thaksin and always have,” said Boonying Pim-Makaed, from the northeastern province of Loei.
“I’m so glad that he’s back.”
(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Panu Wongcha-um, Chayut Setboonsarng, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Devjyot Ghoshal and Napat Wesshasartar; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel, Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)