A tale of two ex-prime ministers

Both may play pivotal roles in their respective nation’s political stability


The dramatic return of Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his incarceration in prison on charges of corruption from a trial in absentia some years ago, occurred almost one year to the day that Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak had been an inmate at Kajang Prison, near Kuala Lumpur.

The media and press both in Malaysia and Thailand had demonized both ex-prime ministers, in attempts to decouple them from their traditional support bases. Narratives such as ‘Thaksin was worse than Hitler’, and ‘Najib is the king of the kleptocrats’, were used to destroy their reputations.

In the case of Malaysia’s Najib, it was thought his imprisonment would make him irrelevant to contemporary politics, and he would disappear. It didn’t. Najib still has deep influence within UMNO.

Thaksin’s return and imprisonment overshadowed the news of the appointment of Srettha Thavisin as Thailand’s 30th prime minister after the joint sitting of the lower house and senate voted for him. Thaksin’s arrival on a private jet at Don Muang International Airport was more a hero’s welcome, than the arrival of a fugitive from justice.

Destiny from opportunity

It now appears that destiny (or opportunity) may enable both incarcerated ex-prime ministers to play a major role in their respective national political environments sometime in the near future.

There is much speculation that deals have been done in both Thaksin’s and Najib’s cases. On Thaksin’s part, the conjecture goes that he will spend a symbolic period in prison (or prison hospital) and then be given a full pardon by Thailand’s King Maha Vajirclongkorn.

On Najib’s part, many speculated he was part of some form of deal when the ‘unity government’ was created, after the last general election. However, there are doubts. Najib is languishing in prison until there is some opportune purpose for him to fulfil. Public pressure also wants to see Najib spent a good percentage of his 12 years in prison.

Consequently, the release of both Thaksin and Najib appears to be related to public optics.

Thaksin’s position is clearer. He may be released soon, as many Thais support him, and it is clear the establishment has clearly accepted his return and the fact he will play some future political role.

Najib’s case is much more complex. There seems to be either setbacks or changes in opinion about his release by those with the power to pardon him. Although, last April, Najib was acquitted of audit tampering, his attempt to suspend the ongoing 1MDB trial was dismissed by the court.

There is also a royal dynamic. Najib is distantly related to the current King Al-Sultan Abdullah of Pahang. Some speculate he may be pardoned before King Abdullah hands over the throne to the current Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar. The Johor Sultan has already put Anwar on notice. If there are not other high-ranking politicians in prison beside Najib, then Najib shouldn’t be in prison alone.

Prior legacies needed now

Both prime ministers did leave legacies from their previous time in office.

Thaksin was prime minister from 2001, and ousted in a military coup in 2006. Thaksin did a lot to eliminate poverty in rural Thailand, through grassroots community development. The Thaksin government managed well fiscally, paying off loans taken from the IMF during the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Najib was prime minister from 2009, where he was defeated by Mahathir Mohamed leading Pakatan Harapan in the 2018 general election. Ironically, Najib can be considered a mild reformer in government. Najib assisted the poor through handouts, initiated some economic liberalization, and tried to transform the civil service. This is more than any other prime minister has done in the last 5 years.

Thaksin’s role could be very important as Pheu Thai is in an uncomfortable coalition with establishment parties Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharath, and the United Thai Nation Party. Someone needs to hold this fragile coalition together. The ultimate survival of this government will depend upon maintaining a good working relationship between civilian politicians, the monarchy, and the military. Someone must also appease disappointed ‘red shirts’ and the youth who supported Move Forward. These groups feel they have been betrayed. Only Thaksin might be able to deal with this.

Thaksin may be play this pivotal role from a platform like the Privy Council, which would give him statesmanlike stature similar to former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, who passed away back in 2019.

For Najib, it appears he is being kept in cold storage. The poor performance of UMNO in the last state elections has opened up discussion about the future leadership of the party.

The fate of UMNO, and Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan coalition will depend upon winning over the Malay vote in the next general elections. Thus, if UMNO can’t do the job, Pakatan Harapan will also fall from government.

This is leading to conjecture that Najib might be one of the few people who could bring UMNO back from the dead, and re-establish the party as a contender in the Malay heartlands. However, many feel the time is still premature. The opportune window might be when the position of king is rotated at the end of this year.

Such a move may steady up the chances of the unity government surviving the next general election. The results of the coming by-elections in Johor in a couple of weeks may influence this. Releasing Najib is a price the leadership is willing to pay.

If these scenarios occur, Najib like Thaksin would play an important political role in Malaysia. He would become the elder statesman that keeps the unity coalition together, keeping it as a credible alternative to Perikatan Nasional. There is also talk that Najib may play and economic advisory role to a government that has lost its way with economic policy.

Both Thaksin and Najib are set for future roles in their respective countries. Anything can happen in these politically volatile political environments, in Malaysia and in Thailand. However, the above scenarios are looking a strong possibility.

Originally published in Asia Sentinel 30th August 2023.