Ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006, the former PM is desperate to regain power – for his sister.
Would you you like some durian?" A smile flashes across the face of Thaksin Shinawatra as he thinks of the notorious Asian fruit, famed for both its sweet taste and wrenchingly rotten smell. The former Thai prime minister has already served steamed pork balls, coconut noodles with green onion and a prawn and minced-pork curry, but he is adamant the meal will not be complete without this addition. He calls for one – thankfully it is not too ripe – and he appears content. "I always say the best Thai restaurant in Dubai is my home," he chuckles.
The business tycoon and former owner of Manchester City football club is perhaps the world's most famous political exile. Since being ousted from office in a bloodless coup in 2006, he has lived a peripatetic lifestyle, travelling the globe in his Bombardier Global Express jet in search of safe havens to continue his business operations and rally his supporters in Thailand. He has spent periods in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Brunei, the UK (where he complained he could not find a decent barber), Nicaragua, Montenegro and Cambodia.
Two-and-half years ago he decided to base himself in Dubai, where he lives in a comfortable villa, set on a private compound looking out to a lake and a golf course. Two luxury cars sit in his driveway, a Lexus LS 600h L and a gleaming black Jaguar, and he says he has flown 750 hours in the last 10 months. He admits he remains a billionaire.
Now, the 61-year-old is to once again be thrust centre stage in Thailand's bitter political turmoil as the party he controls from overseas, Pheu Thai (PT), launches an election campaign before a vote on 3 July. Thaksin has appointed an inexperienced but photogenic younger sister, Yingluck, as the party's prime ministerial candidate. A number of polls give PT an edge as it battles to beat the incumbent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his Democrat Party, but most observers say the outcome remains uncertain. The behaviour of the army, which has seized power on 18 occasions since the 1930s, will be crucial
"I think it looks very good. The popularity of the party and Yingluck is getting more and more," says Thaksin, as he voices concern that his opponents may try and undermine any PT victory by other means. "Even though we are the opposition, we still have the highest number of MPs in parliament. That's why they're scared, [why] they might use the same tricks. But if [our opponents] were to do it again, it would mean that they don't care [about] the world. They don't care [about] democracy in Thailand."
Thaksin remains a deeply divisive figure. He has widespread support among the rural and urban poor, especially in Thailand's north and north-east, who benefited from a series of populist measures he introduced between 2001-2006. Last year, his Red Shirts supporters filled the streets of Bangkok for many weeks as they demanded parliament be dissolved. But among the urban middle-classes and the political and business elite, he is often despised. Having been convicted in absentia of corruption in 2009 over a series of measures he took while in office which the country's highest court said benefited his extended family, £900m of his assets were seized and his passport was revoked, forcing him to obtain alternatives from Nicaragua and Montenegro. Many consider him nothing less than a fugitive from justice.
During his time as premier, the telecommunications tycoon also faced criticism from human rights campaigners, particularly for military operations in the "war on drugs", in which hundreds of civilian and dissidents were said to have been summarily executed, and for shutting down of critical journalists. In one incident at Tak Bai in October 2004, 78 men were suffocated and crushed to death after being loaded into the back of army trucks.
In the summer of 2007, when Thaksin bought Manchester City, a team whose fortunes he says he still follows, Human Rights Watch described him as a "human rights abuser of the worst kind".
Thaksin insists he is seeking reconciliation. Even though his supporters earlier this year filed an application at the International Criminal Court in The Hague seeking to have Mr Abhisit charged with crimes against humanity, he says the PT is ready to reach out to its opponents. "PT offers reconciliation. Even though we are the victims of this bullying, we offer this... if we win, we offer reconciliation. We don't want revenge," he says, sitting in a drawing room containing photographs of himself and various world leaders. "We don't want the country to be back down any more. We want the people to be back to normal life, we want the economy to progress. We want the country to move forward."
At the same time, particularly after the example of the protesters involved in the Arab spring, he doubts his supporters would sit back quietly if a fairly elected PT government was not allowed to take office. (After he was ousted, two subsequent allies who became PM were forced from office by the courts, over what supporters say were politically motivated allegations.) He believes the wider world would also not tolerate more violence. He has called for international observers to participate in the polls.
"There has to be a reason. They cannot just say we don't want you to become the government," he tells The Independent and another international newspaper. "If [our opponents] were to do something unethical, unlawful, it's not good for them, not good for the country, not good for the people... I really urge them to let things go according to what we call... democracy."