July 12, 2011
“I will utilise my femininity to work fully for our country.”
– Yingluck Shinawatra quoted by BBC
In the military-dominated, arm-twisting world of Thai politics, the slender hand of a woman with an enduring smile has managed to wrestle through to the top. In her tenacious trip to this perch, filled with muck-racking and sledging, she hardly seemed to break a sweat. When her mighty opponents attacked her with rancor, she scared them back with charm, which was more potent than a fitting jibe. The possessor of these slender hands, the smiling lips, and graceful poise is none other than Mrs. Yingluck Shinawatra, the leader of the Pheu Thai party, which secured a majority in Thailand’s nationwide elections in early July. Following her emphatic victory, Mrs. Shinawatra is all set to become Thailand’s first female prime minister.
Mrs. Shinawatra’s stellar rise in Thailand’s politics has raised more than a few eyebrows. That is because a month ago Mrs. Shinawatra was not even a major figure in Thailand’s personality-based politics. In political circles she was simply known as the youngest sister of Taksin Shinawatra, the hugely popular but divisive leader, whose five-year rule as Thailand’s Prime Minister was overthrown by a military coup in 2006. Although Mr. Taksin fled Thailand soon after the coup to escape a two-year prison stint on corruption charges, he still wields immense influence on the country’s politics, thanks to unflinching popular support from large swathes of rural Thailand. So, when Thailand’s military-backed government announced that it would resign and hold a general election in early 2011, Mr. Taksin saw an opportunity to turn his popular support into electoral gains. But living in exile in Dubai, Mr. Taksin was barred from contesting elections. Instead, he wanted a trusted ally to represent him on his native soil.
And that trusted ally was found in his youngest sister, the charming Mrs. Yingluck, who Taksin eventually handpicked to lead the party. Since then, Mrs. Yingluck’s stock has only risen. In Thailand’s July elections, her slick campaign and pleasing personality helped the Pheu Thai party win 265 of the 500 seats and helped it emerge as the single-largest party.
The 44-year old Mrs. Yingluck of course had a gilded childhood. She was born into the Shinawatra-clan, which built its business empire first by trading in silk and then later by dominating the world of finance, property-development and infrastructure. Mrs. Yingluck’s father was a famous politician and served as a Member of Parliament. The bright Mrs. Yingluck obtained a masters degree in public administration from Kentucky State University. Soon after her studies, she excelled in managing her family’s business. Mrs. Yingluck served as the chief executive of AIS, a telecommunications company founded by Mr. Thaksin, and also served as a director of the Manchester City soccer team that Mr. Taksin bought in 2007. Just before being chosen as the leader of the Pheu Thai party in 2011, Mrs. Yingluck was CEO of SC Asset Corp, a Shinawatra family-owned company. Her five-year stint at the firm is largely viewed as a remarkable success. The share price of SC Asset Corp jumped more than 100% in her five-year tenure, even as the benchmark Thai index climbed only around 45%.
Now a majority of Thailand’s polity wants her to replicate that kind of a success for the country as well. But can she? A lot of political observers fear that she might end up as a puppet in the hands of Mr. Taksin, who could pull the strings behind the screen. In fact, Mr. Taksin himself has called Mrs. Yingluck his “clone “. Even in the elections, Mrs. Yingluck based her campaign around the popularity of Mr. Taksin, whose populist policies such as subsidized credit and higher prices for crops fetched him die-hard devoted voters. In many villages and towns in northern Thailand, a stronghold of the Shinawatra clan, Mrs. Yingluck hollered “I ask for your trust as you used to trust my brother”.
“…women in Thailand have a lot of ability, but, for myself, I will
use my (status) ” as a female politician to address the country’s
political situation and engage in dialogue with all others to make
sure that the country moves forward towards peace.”
- Mrs. Yingluck Shinawatra in an Interview to the Bangkok Post
A majority of Thailand’s voters indeed supported Mrs. Yingluck in her quest to continue Mr. Taksin’s legacy. But that has irked the opposite camp that is dead-set against Mr. Taksin. In fact, the educated polity of Southern Thailand and the middle-class of large cities like Bangkok fear Mrs. Yingluck’s ascent to power will eventually result in the exoneration of Mr. Taksin, and that would pave the way for his return to Thailand. As far as economic policy is concerned, Mrs. Yingluck resembles her elder brother, much to the chagrin of fiscally-minded economists. Mrs. Yingluck has promised freebies such as one million tablet computers for Thailand’s school children, a 25% wage hike to the labor force, and other sops such as subsidized credit.
Making matters worse for Mrs. Yingluck is the bitter divide between the country’s voters that has made the country unstable. The five years since Mr. Taksin was overthrown saw Thailand witness some of its darkest moments. While the military rewrote the constitution and favored a government made up of politicians loyal to Thailand’s monarchy, rural voters who saw Mr. Taksin as their hero, launched repeated protests to enable their exiled leader return and fight elections. This group of pro-Taksin followers called themselves the “Red Shirts”. The counter-protesting group, the Yellow shirts, was made up of mostly urban voters and the traditional elite who saw Mr. Taksin as corrupt and lacking respect for the country’s monarchy. In one of the bloody protests between these self-proclaimed colored warriors, Bangkok was shut down for nearly two months in 2010, with nearly 90 people killed.
Mrs. Yingluck is promising reconciliation between these groups. She has said that her status as a woman will certainly help her in dealing with the polarized country. Just after winning the elections, Mrs. Yingluck, in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, said “We have a lot of problems to solve, and my strength as a woman is that I’m better able to compromise, and I’m more patient than some of the men.” She also said there will be no witch-hunting of those who organized the coup against her brother.
But in Thailand winning elections is just one half of the game. The other half is convincing the country’s military that the elected government is capable of governing. In the period between 2007 and 2010, two pro-Taksin leaders were dismissed on various charges. Given this, Mrs. Yingluck has an onerous task ahead. Despite the fact that she owes her electoral victory to her brother, Mrs. Yingluck might have to make the bitter decision to distance herself from her brother to prove her value as an astute politician.
Yet thus far, the mother of a nine-year old boy has been quite pragmatic. In a country of warring men in yellow and red, she hopes to be the woman waving the white flag.
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