DUBAI—Thailand's ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra emerged from months of silence in his self-imposed exile Thursday to say he intends to play a key role in running from afar his country's economic policies if Thailand's main opposition party wins coming elections.
His immediate goals include slashing corporate-tax rates and pushing for an amnesty for everybody charged with politically linked offenses in the tumultuous four-plus years since a military coup in Bangkok swept him from power.
"This conflict has been going on for five years and many people have suffered mentally and physically," Mr. Thaksin told The Wall Street Journal in an interview in a villa in Dubai. "We should start all over again to help the country prosper."
The 61-year-old former telecommunications mogul, who fled the country in 2008 before being convicted of corruption in a case he says was politically motivated, remains a polarizing figure in Thailand. His political opponents in power in Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy, contend he will stop at nothing to reassert control over a country he once dominated after winning landslide popular elections in 2001 and 2005.
Mr. Thaksin has kept a low profile since the violent collapse of antigovernment protests in Bangkok last spring. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Thai capital from around the country to protest what they said is a rigged political system that places power in the hands of Thailand's conservative, royalist establishment at the expense of a large number of the country's voters.
Dressed in their distinctive red shirts, many of the demonstrators were enthusiastic backers of Mr. Thaksin, and he urged them on from overseas after a Thai court confiscated $1.4 billion of his assets, ruling they were corruptly earned—a charge Mr. Thaksin denies.
A total of 91 people were killed in clashes between security forces and protesters. The running street battles culminated in a series of arson attacks on shopping malls and the country's stock exchange on May 19. Mr. Thaksin and several other Red Shirt leaders later denied charges of terrorism amid widespread reports that he helped to incite the unrest.
Now, Mr. Thaksin says he is reinvigorated by the wave of uprisings sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, and buoyed by the prospect of new elections that could be held as soon as the end of June. His renewed engagement in Thai politics is an indication that the opposition party is preparing to vigorously enter the campaign. It also appears to provide some evidence that Mr. Thaksin plays a hand in directing what happens in the country, just as the country's political and military establishment accuse him of doing.
The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, says he plans to dissolve parliament in early May, potentially launching Thailand into a fraught couple of months of campaigning. Opinion polls show Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party neck-and-neck with the For Thais Party backed by Mr. Thaksin and his supporters. Many political analysts predict neither party will win an outright majority, and will have to rely on Thailand's many smaller political parties to form a coalition government.
If the For Thais Party wins, it could potentially push through an amnesty law enabling Mr. Thaksin to return to Thailand. Its precampaign pitch to voters is that it is the party that will bring the former premier home. Even if he doesn't return, Mr. Thaksin's latest comments indicate he plans to exert a sizable influence from overseas.
"Thailand's democracy is at a crossroads," he said. "What's happening in the Middle East and North Africa tells you that the whole world, the majority of people, are changing because of the influence of what they see outside of their own country and the impact of the Internet and social networks."
A steady stream of visitors come to his villa here among the golf courses lining the outskirts of Dubai, which is among several countries where he maintains residences. He also regularly phones in to Red Shirt rallies in Thailand to offer protesters encouragement.
Among the measures he has in mind if his supporters win is cutting the country's corporate tax, which, at 30%, is higher than rates in neighbors such as Malaysia, where companies are taxed 25% of their profits, and Singapore, where the rate is capped at 17%.
Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij last month indicated the government is looking at cutting corporate-tax rates if the move doesn't affect long-term revenue collection too greatly.
Mr. Thaksin also said he is keen to bolster the country's domestic economy to stimulate more imports. That, he said, would be a good way of curbing the steady rise of the country's baht currency against the dollar—a trend that threatens the competitiveness of some export-driven industries in Thailand.
"He is highly unpredictable, but in the past few months he has disappeared from view," says Pavin Chachavalpongun, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "For him to come out now shows he is very much interested in having a say in what happens in Thai politics—and he is a determinant factor in what happens."
Red Shirt leaders see Mr. Thaksin as a galvanizing force. Speaking in Bangkok earlier this week, one of the movement's main leaders, Nattawut Saikeua, said Mr. Thaksin had transformed the political consciousness of many Thai people with populist policies that targeted the economic chasm between the country's wealthiest and poorest people.
Yet many people in Thailand worry Mr. Thaksin's return to a higher political profile could hinder any reconciliation between Red Shirt activists and the country's traditional bureaucratic and military elites.
While pushing pro-poor policies during his premiership, Mr. Thaksin sometimes bypassed the country's democratic checks and balances,critics say. At one stage he was accused of masking the extent of his wealth while in office, but was acquitted after telling Thailand's Constitutional Court he had made a mistake.
Some influential Thais, including senior army officers, also say they feared his political successes threatened the authority of Thailand's revered royal family.
Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said Thursday that while Mr. Thaksin is talking about democracy, Prime Minister Abhisit's administration was taking concrete steps to make sure an election happens. The country's parliament, he said, has just passed new laws enabling an election to proceed.
Mr. Panitan said Mr. Abhisit has ruled out the possibility of an amnesty for politically linked crimes. He said the government isn't able to institute an amnesty program for cases that have already been forwarded to the country's courts—including the terrorism charges against Mr. Thaksin and a conviction for corruption in 2008.
New elections might not be enough to resolve Thailand's political divides, Mr. Thaksin warned, and he also voiced his concern that polls might not go ahead. He said his main concern is that the armed forces and powerful bureaucrats—whom he calls an "invisible hand"—would attempt to derail the vote or dissuade smaller parties from enabling the For Thais Party to form a coalition government. He pointed to how in 2008 the country's courts forced one pro-Thaksin premier to resign and forced the fall of another pro-Thaksin government by ruling it violated election laws.
Mr. Thaksin said Thailand's economy risks falling behind some of its competitors if the country fails to recalibrate its political system and scale back what he says is a creeping culture of censorship in some parts of the Thai media.
"We can't simply assemble things for others anymore, we need a lot more creativity," Mr. Thaksin said. "But if freedom of speech is not there, and there is no freedom for people in getting access to knowledge and capital, how can you be creative? That's what I really worry about."
Write to James Hookway at firstname.lastname@example.org