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Bangkok, Thailand -- Thailand's divisive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra is expected to return to the kingdom from exile on Tuesday, threatening fresh instability on the day parliament votes for a new prime minister after three months of political deadlock.
Thaksin, 74, is the most influential and controversial politician in recent Thai history, loathed by the pro-military and royalist elites but adored by many in rural areas whose lives were changed by his policies in the early 2000s.
His return from 15 years of self-imposed exile -- which his daughter announced would be at 9:00 am (0200 GMT) on Tuesday -- comes at a politically charged moment in the kingdom.
Thailand has been without a prime minister for three months after the youthful Move Forward Party (MFP) stormed to a shock success in May elections, only to be stymied by the conservative establishment opposed to its promise of change.
The Pheu Thai party, the election runners-up headed by Thaksin's daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra, then broke with MFP to create a new coalition with army-backed candidates despite a campaign pledge never to do so.
On Saturday, days after announcing a deal with the ex-party of outgoing Prime Minster Prayut Chan-o-cha -- who came to power in a coup in 2014 -- Paetongtarn said her father would return home just hours before parliament votes for a premier.
Thaksin, who confirmed his daughter's announcement, went into self-exile in 2008 over decades-old criminal charges he claims are politically motivated -- and still faces the possibility of jail time.
"He will have to gain some security from his people being the government," political analyst Jade Donavanik told AFP.
While hatred of Thaksin runs deep in establishment circles, the unexpected success of MFP and its charismatic young leader Pita Limjaroenrat may have provoked a rethink.
"If they have to choose between these two evils, they will be choosing the lesser of the two," Jade said.
Outside elite circles, Pheu Thai's deal with the army-backed United Thai Nation Party has dismayed many supporters and progressives who voted overwhelmingly against military-backed parties in May.
- Old versus new -
An ex-policeman, Thaksin made billions after founding the telecoms firm Shin Corp and then turned to politics.
A populist movement, then unprecedented, catapulted him to power and he served as prime minister between 2001 and 2006.
Thaksin commands loyalty in many rural areas, where Pheu Thai is seen as inextricably linked with him and his family, and remains a household name.
But in May's elections, his party did not win the popular vote for the first time since 2001.
"It is a fight of the old and the new," political activist Thida Thavornseth told AFP.
"Thai people change. They love Thaksin but they love democracy more," she said before the deal was announced.
It is unclear how long Thaksin might serve in jail, should he return. His associates hope he may be moved to house arrest after a brief incarceration, although there are no guarantees.
"Thaksin controls Pheu Thai party but the other power can control Thaksin," Thida said.
Many in the pro-democracy "Red Shirt" movement have reacted furiously to Pheu Thai's deal with army-backed groups. Scores of Red Shirt protesters were killed by the military in 2010 demonstrations under Thaksin's name.
"Most Red Shirts loved Thaksin, because under him everything was better, but now they have changed: they want to change the country," Thida said.
- Moving forward -
Young progressives were emboldened by unprecedented calls in 2020 to amend Thailand's lese-majeste laws, backing MFP as a result, and the royal issue remains central to the Thaksin question.
"As he returns to his country, Thaksin may require the support of both the military and the monarchy," Korakot Sangyenpan, a Democracy Restoration Group campaigner, told AFP.
Pheu Thai's decision to work with once-reviled conservative blocs has made Thaksin far more palatable to establishment figures, he said.
"Thaksin for the new generation is quite an old story, but for the conservatives it's quite a new hope for them," he said.
But the question of Thaksin's return was no more than a distraction, said a member of protest group Thaluwang, who gave only her nickname Bung.
"People will not focus on the real problem, which is the Thai monarchy, and they will think that Thaksin will help and everything will get better," she told AFP.
"It would probably be a step back for Thai democracy protests."
© Agence France-Presse