Thaksin Shinawatra hasn’t set foot in Thailand since he was convicted in a corruption case brought after a 2006 coup that deposed him. But in the poor northeast, the billionaire former prime minister is seemingly everywhere.
On a sweltering March day, pickups full of farmers wearing straw hats and carrying umbrellas clogged the roads heading to a rally in Khon Kaen, one of the biggest cities in a region that’s helped Thaksin’s allies win every election since 2001. Speakers for the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai party invoked him repeatedly in speeches, and supporters wore T-shirts depicting his sister Yingluck, who was ousted in a 2014 coup. Sudarat Keyuraphan, a former cabinet minister under Thaksin who’s one of two candidates leading the polls in the race to become the next prime minister in the March 24 election, jumped on a motorcycle to make it to the stage on time. “We believe in the majority of farmers, in the little people,” Sudarat says in an interview, echoing the message that endeared Thaksin—who, as an exile, is forbidden from direct involvement in the election—to working-class Thais.