By Amena Bakr
DUBAI (Reuters) - Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted former prime minister backing his sister's bid to unseat the ruling party in Thailand's upcoming general election, is optimistic about the outcome -- and a possible homecoming.
The billionaire former telecommunications tycoon, who lives in exile to avoid a prison sentence for graft, said he hoped to return to Thailand by December, but acknowledged in an interview with Reuters that he would have to negotiate with his powerful enemies first.
Living in Dubai since fleeing Thailand ahead of a 2008 court verdict, the twice-elected Thaksin said he was in regular contact with his youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, while managing what remains of his wealth from a villa in the cosmopolitan desert city.
The 61-year-old, self-styled "CEO Premier" who was accused of authoritarianism during his five years in office, appeared to be more conciliatory now, urging dialogue with the Thai establishment and the generals who overthrew him in a 2006 coup.
"In politics we have to use the iron fist and the velvet glove," said Thaksin, who has made his home in a region that has seen unprecedented upheaval since early 2011 with people in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria taking to the streets against their governments.
"Nowadays you have to use more of the velvet glove than iron fist. During time of conflict you need to have more dialogue instead of just trying to use law to suppress the other side," he said, referring to Thailand long-running political crisis.
Thaksin's Puea Thai Party is challenging Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's ruling Democrats in a July 3 election and Yingluck's entry into the race as prime minister candidate has energized Thaksin's urban and rural working class supporters, who see him as a mold-breaking populist hero.
Thaksin urged his rivals not to interfere in the election or try to influence the formation of the next government.
"They have to respect the decision of the people, otherwise there is no use to arrange an election," he said.
The former policeman and Premier League soccer club owner is betting that victory will pave the way for a general amnesty that might allow him to return without going to prison.
YEARNING FOR HOME
Thaksin's yearning for his homeland is clear at his resplendent white mansion in the upscale Emirates Hills area of Dubai, where he surrounds himself with Thai orchids and at least half a dozen Thai staff.
Magazines from home are stacked up on a coffee table next to a bowl of Thai candy and the smell of Thai food wafts through the room.
Messengers travel back and forth between his home and Bangkok, relaying information to his allies. Abhisit suspects Thaksin of funding Puea Thai and running the opposition through his Yingluck, a 43-year-old businesswoman.
Asked what he meant by once calling Yingluck his "clone" Thaksin said he had played a big role in her upbringing.
"That means that her attitude, her thinking and culture are very similar to me," he said.
He took pains to pledge his loyalty to Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who although in hospital for nearly two years, still wields much influence. Thaksin has been accused of republicanism, which he vehemently rejects.
"We want to have everybody to be comfortable with us, that our party is very loyal with the monarchy," Thaksin said. "There is no question about the loyalty with the monarchy that is one message that we keep sending."
He hoped to return to Thailand in December for the wedding of one of his daughters. However, he accepted that could only happen following negotiations with his opponents, in particular, Thailand's politicized army.
Thaksin, who has had his Thai citizenship revoked, uses Dubai as a base and travels on Montenegrin and Nicaraguan passports. He said he was scouting investments in Africa, playing golf and he likes to stroll in Dubai's air-conditioned malls, where he is often recognized and asked to pose for photographs.
"I'm a mascot in Dubai Mall, when I meet some Asian people, like Singaporean, Chinese and Malaysian, they recognize me and they ask to take pictures with me," he said. "I'm the man of the people, so I'm OK, I don't mind."
Thaksin is also friends with Pakistan's exiled former president Pervez Musharraf, who has also taken up residency in Dubai and was at Thaksin's mansion this week for a meal.
Thaksin said he has $1 billion of his wealth remaining, having had $1.4 billion confiscated last year by a Thai court, which ruled it had been amassed illegally while in office.
"I don't have much money left," he said.
"The government stole my money. (Now) I invest in mining, gold, platinum and coal. I think the price of gold will be increasing and by this year will probably go to $1,600 (per ounce)."
Although Abhisit has been credited with steering Thailand through the 2008 global financial crisis, Thaksin, whose Puea Thai Party is promising wage increases and cheap credit for the poor, said more work was needed to raise rural incomes and boost domestic consumption.
"We have to spur the domestic economy, that is the top priority, from the grassroots level. And I believe we cannot move the pyramid from the top, we have to move from the bottom."
Thaksin said the party was also targeting infrastructure development, such as reclaiming land and expanding rail networks to relieve urban congestion in Bangkok.
Foreign partners for such projects could be paid in barter deals, he said: "Instead of paying in U.S. dollars, we can pay in agricultural currency like rubber, rice and chicken."
(Additional reporting by Martina Fuchs; Editing by Reed Stevenson and Martin Petty)