NAKHON RATCHASIMA, Thailand: “Here comes Thaksin!”
It is a catchphrase that almost unfailingly draws a smile, and then a hug or a selfie, from voters along the rural back roads around Nakhon Ratchasima, commonly known as Korat.
But the man with the slogan, electioneering for support in this community, is no one particularly famous. He most certainly is not the Thaksin people in these parts have long adored.
Indeed, he has only been Thaksin for little over a month. For all of his previous 55 years he was Sathitkhun.
“Why did I change my name to Thaksin? Do people know me? They do but not many people do.
“Wherever I walk now, I say 'hello brothers and sisters, Thaksin is here'. People welcome me,” he told Channel NewsAsia on the campaign trail.
Sathitkhun formally and legally changed his name to Thaksin on Jan 31, in time for Thailand’s long awaited national elections being held this weekend.
His decision was a strategic one, playing to the local community’s yearning for the return of the Shinawatra family.
“People don’t know us much with our original names. This province has 14 constituencies. We need people to know us. We decided that we should come up with a ‘brand’,” he said.
In the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand, the Shinawatra family continues to be admired, and missed after the sibling former prime ministers were both expelled from the country over charges of abuse of power in 2006 and 2017 respectively.
Both enjoyed widespread support in the region, thanks to generous populist policies that benefited poorer, rural communities.
These included Thaksin’s sprawling microcredit systems and Yingluck’s infamous rice pledging scheme that saw farmers paid guaranteed above-market rates for their crops, a programme which saw her sentenced to five years in prison.
“Grassroots and people in the rural area love Thaksin and Yingluck so much. Under the Thaksin premiership, Thai people lived a good life,” Thaksin Kuankoksung said.
“PM Thaksin and PM Yingluck are in the hearts of people. I don’t believe when any Isaan people say they don’t love Thaksin.”
In a nearby electoral district to Thaksin’s, something similar is happening. Yingluck is also on the campaign trail.
‘HERE COMES YINGLUCK’
Kanokwan Petraska has been working at local levels of politics for 20 years but like Thaksin has aspirations for higher office, a national calling. In a crowded field this election campaign she says she needed to stand out.
So now, she is known as Yingluck - spelled Yinglak officially on her new identification. With 37 candidates in her constituency and a short campaigning period, she hopes changing her name might yield a good outcome for her and her party.
“I wanted people to remember my name and instantly say: 'Oh here comes Miss Yinglak from Puea Chart Party and her number is 13',” she said, referring to her voting ballot number; somewhat ironically, candidate names will not appear on the papers for this election.
“The fastest way to make people remember you is to pick her name because she is such an outstanding leader.”
The reaction to this unconventional decision by the pair - as well as another two candidates in the same province also now called Thaksin - has been overwhelmingly positive, they agree.
The lasting popularity of the Thaksin brand of politics is clear in the northeast. A recent opinion poll shows that Thaksin’s latest party incarnation - Pheu Thai - holds the biggest amount of support throughout the region.
Its 43.6 per cent leads the progressive-minded Future Forward Party at 23.2 per cent, according to the poll by the E-Saan Centre for Business and Economic Research.
Nakhon Ratchasima is an important province - it has more than 2.1 million eligible voters, with 14 constituencies, the second highest in the the country after Bangkok.
Thaksin and Yinglak are running for Puea Chart, a newly formed party considered a subsidiary of Pheu Thai, part of a divide and conquer strategy designed to combat new electoral conditions that disadvantage large parties. But they consider any votes they receive as dropping into a larger Shinawatra-controlled pot.
This is not blind worship - both candidates have clear ideas about the challenges facing their local constituencies. For them, economic issues centered around agriculture have been neglected in recent years.
“I believe that farmers and agriculturalists are the heart of the nation. And they are the grassroots of the nation. If the grassroots are good and strong, the whole tree will be strong and prosper,” Yinglak said.
Notably, policies centred around such issues were a key pillar in Thaksin and Yingluck’s vote-garnering strategy.
While the result of the election remains hard to predict, one certainty is a return of Thaksin-influenced parliament actors, and possibly a prime minister depending on voting outcomes and coalition negotiations.
But the consequences of democratic rule returning to their control - via proxy this time- is one of the unknowns of this vote.
While the working class were at the receiving end of generous spending, the country was riddled with violent division and corruption, which the military claims to have used the past five years cleaning up after ousting the Yingluck administration in a 2014 coup.
Despite their absence, the Shinawatras have remained an unshakable force in Thai society - the fact that candidates under their political wing would change their names in efforts to attract support is proof of that.
But their strength could be “diminishing”, according to Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political analyst from Ubon Ratchathani University. He believes Pheu Thai cannot take their stronghold areas for granted anymore.
“Thaksin’s popularity remains strong but on the decline and is being challenged by the rising political star Thanathorn (Jungrungreangkit) of the Future Forward Party," he said.
Still, the 69-year-old Thaksin enjoys such a strong grip on parts of Thailand, particularly in rural areas, that the cult of his personality remains imprinted in its dusty fields more than a decade since he last set foot in the country.
Other political leaders have tried and failed to emulate the types of character and policies that saw this influence build. For the next wave of wannabe members of parliament, simply joining the Shinawatras and their cause is not enough. One step better is to become them, if only by name.
“If you ask villagers if they miss Thaksin. They can answer 'yes' right away,” Thaksin Kuankoksung said. “If I get a lot of votes this time, it means that people really love Thaksin.”
In response Dr Titipol said: “It shows how insensible they are."
But the "new" Thaksin is unwavering in his support.
If he is elected he says he will try his best to help bring his namesake home. And his new name will be staying with him, win or lose.
“I will keep using this name to the day I die.”
Additional reporting by Ryn Jirenuwat