The Silvio Berlusconi of Asia

June 26 (Bloomberg) -- Red warning signs are flashing again in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand.

We’re not talking about flashing lights of emergency vehicles -- although that might yet prove to be the case -- but the T-shirts of protesters loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire prime minister ousted in 2006 and still dominating Thailand from exile. Tens of thousands of “Red Shirt” Thaksin loyalists took to the streets Sunday supporting amendments to the constitution that would get their hero closer to returning home.

Opposition parties and the judiciary are determined to keep out a man they view as no less Machiavellian than Richard Nixon. So resolute, in fact, that they have resorted to warping the nation’s democratic institutions to head off his return. It proves that almost six years since Thaksin’s departure, Thailand’s government is no more credible or efficient than it was under his leadership.

What’s a troubled, stuck-in-2006 nation to do? Let Thaksin return and get this mess over with once and for all.

Not that Thaksin, the Silvio Berlusconi of Asia, deserves a single baht of his money back. Like the former Italian prime minister, Thaksin used his business connections to ascend to the leadership. Once there, he bent politics to the will of his family enterprises. The Thai state seized about $1.5 billion of Thaksin’s fortune once he was driven from power, and he wants it back.

Three Successes

Thaksin has been extraordinarily successful at three things since fleeing to avoid prison: playing the victim, drumming up support overseas and distracting Thailand’s leaders from moving on.

It’s time to call his bluff. Let the man return and prove that he’s not the crook that opposition forces claim. Force him to demonstrate he’s about more than just recouping his wealth. Make him stand before the Thai masses and explain his vision.

Will it be messy? Yes. Might the “Red Shirts” and the “Yellow Shirts” loyal to Thaksin’s opposition renew the huge protests that cost more than 100 lives? Absolutely. It might be worth it because there’s no election or judicial decision on the horizon to return the Land of Smiles to its former glory.

And that’s a problem. Investors have been patient -- and well rewarded -- with a place that has suffered 18 coup attempts in the past eight decades. Its 67 million people figure large in the global supply chains of industries such as autos and technology, helping to sustain fast growth rates -- an estimated 5 percent this year. That has made Thailand a must-invest market.

But Thailand’s perpetual crisis is testing tolerance. Major floods last year weren’t the fault of Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Her unsteady handling of the deluge that breached Bangkok’s defenses confirmed concerns that she is both inexperienced and a proxy for her brother as he finagles a way back into power.

Signs of incompetence and favoritism are what can cost a country like Thailand opportunities and jobs. At a time when developing nations try to become less reliant on export-led growth and Europe’s crisis is deepening, Bangkok is preoccupied with a man in exile. The way to end this saga is obvious.

Thaksin based himself in Dubai, but has visited everywhere from China to Japan to Montenegro (where he secured a passport) to the U.K. (he owned, for a time, soccer team Manchester City). Recently, he embarked on a tour of neighboring Cambodia and Laos, fueling speculation he was circling Thailand to signal that he’s closing in.

Straight Face

Somehow, Thaksin keeps a straight face as he compares himself to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela or India’s Mahatma Gandhi. Yet every stop Thaksin makes is an opportunity to play the martyr for the local media. Each visit is a chance to organize major rallies and embarrass officials in Bangkok.

China tends to send its loudest critics overseas to marginalize their impact, Chen Guangcheng being a recent example. Thailand is finding that model doesn’t work when the detractor in question can hire Edelman Public Relations and the Washington lobbying firm of Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor, to burnish his image.

Why Thaksin has such a hold over millions of Thais, many of them desperately poor, is a fascinating question. Thaksin tossed piles of cash at rural communities, a windfall that convinced locals that they were voting in their economic interest when they voted for Thaksin. Some probably were. His health-care programs proved very popular. Yet this solid powerbase enabled Thaksin to bypass the nation’s governing elites, mainly on the way to familial enrichment.

It’s time to stop blaming Thaksin alone. It’s not like Thai leaders, generals and judges have seen to the nation’s political development since then. Nostalgia for Thaksin would be negligible had they abided by democratic standards.

Thailand could spend another six years obsessing over all things Thaksin. Or it could just bring him home, and sort out this mess.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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