When ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra makes his planned return Thursday from 17 months of exile, he will face arrest for alleged financial crimes but can take satisfaction that he is still the most commanding figure in Thai politics.
Not only the police will be waiting at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport for the 58-year-old billionaire politician, accused of graft and abuse of power during his 2001-2006 time in office.
Hundreds of supporters _ from the millions who gave his now-disbanded Thai Rak Thai party two huge election victories _ are also expected to be on hand to greet him.
"I just want to be going back as a normal citizen and would like to live my life peacefully with my family," Thaksin said Wednesday in Hong Kong before his return.
But the former prime minister inspires fear and loathing almost as much as adulation, and his return could re-ignite the deep political divisions that led to his downfall.
On the one side are Thaksin's rural supporters, who appreciated the financial and social welfare policies he initiated. On the other are the urban elite who resented his autocratic ways and failure to clearly separate his own financial affairs from the national interest.
Already, some of his old opponents are threatening new protests against him. Months of strident anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok culminated in the Sept. 19, 2006, military coup that toppled him.
In Hong Kong, Thaksin reiterated a vow to stay out of politics.
"I quit politics already. No more, no more prime minister," he said while dining at a Chinese restaurant with about 40 supporters.
Neither his fans nor his foes take his words very seriously.
His return marks another step in an impressive comeback from the political oblivion into which he seemed trapped after the coup, staged while he was abroad. His London-based exile was eased by his fortune, earned in telecommunications, and he busied himself with moves that kept him in the spotlight, such as buying Britain's Manchester City soccer club.
The forces that helped unseat Thaksin _ the military, Bangkok's educated middle class and the country's elite, including people associated with the country's monarchy _ worked hard to erase Thaksin's political legacy.
They changed the constitution to limit big parties' power and sought to demonize him as a corrupt destroyer of democracy, in addition to launching various criminal investigations.
But his rural supporters stayed loyal, in gratitude for programs such as cheap health care and low-interest loans, and Thaksin's path back was eased by the victory of a pro-Thaksin party in last December's general elections, the first since the coup.
The People's Power Party is regarded as a proxy for Thaksin, whose former party was disbanded by court order.
The replacement party ran on a platform of bringing Thaksin back home and reinstating his populist, pro-growth policies. It won the most seats in the lower house of Parliament, and earlier this month formed a six-party coalition government.
Thaksin had said he would not return until democracy was restored to Thailand, which was taken to mean a government which might not pressure him too hard on the legal front.
Thaksin and his wife Pojaman face corruption and conflict of interest charges in connection with her purchase of prime Bangkok real estate from a state agency in 2003, while he was prime minister. Pojaman returned to Thailand in January and was released on bail pending trial.
Thaksin also faces separate charges of concealing assets.
Altogether, he could face up to 15 years in jail for the cases already in progress against him.
Police will detain Thaksin on arrival and "they have to bring him to court," Rakkiat Wattapong, the Supreme Court secretary-general, said Wednesday.
The chief of Thaksin's legal defense team, Pichit Chuenban, said Thaksin would surrender to police and seek bail.
Thaksin on Wednesday called the corruption and conflict of interest charges "unjust, unfair allegations" and said "I have to get myself bail."
Thaksin said the charges were "cooked up by my political enemies" and he would fight them in court.
But he added he harbors some concern for his safety.
"I am, and my relatives are, worried about my security. So my schedule in Thailand is not fixed by me but by people around me," said Thaksin, who will also be met at the airport by several Cabinet ministers.
Thaksin was born into a well-off Chinese-Thai business family in the northern city of Chiang Mai. He joined the police upon graduation from high school and later earned scholarships to American universities for graduate degrees in criminology.
With his fortune made in the telecoms sector, he founded the Thai Rak Thai party as a vehicle to propel him to the prime minister's job. He came to power by projecting a dynamic image in the malaise that lingered after the country's 1997 financial crisis.
His 2005 re-election marked the first time a single party has captured a majority of parliamentary seats in a free election, and followed the equally impressive accomplishment of becoming the first civilian prime minister to serve out a full four-year term.