Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
Yingluck Shinawatra reaches out to shake hands with supporters after speaking at a rally during her election campaign on June 29, 2011 in Burirum, Thailand.
By Warangkana Chomchuen
BANGKOK, Thailand – Less than a week before Sunday’s general election, opinion polls unanimously suggest that Thailand is likely to get the first female prime minister. Only a few months ago she was nowhere near the political limelight. But it’s not that hard to see why Yingluck entered into politics with a bang and is rising quickly to the country’s top job.
Her last name is Shinawatra. She shares it with her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the two-time elected prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, and is now living as a fugitive from Thai justice in Dubai.
Thaksin picked his sister over other candidates to lead the Pheu Thai, or “For Thai,” party that he founded originally as Thai Rak Thai. This nepotism, to some people’s disdain, turned out to be a brilliant move on Thaksin’s part.
Despite little political experience, the 44-year-old business executive has generated as much buzz as a veteran politician: Yingluck has monopolized covers of major political weekly magazines for weeks. Thousands gathered to wait under the blazing sun to see her on her campaign tour.
“I know you love my brother Thaksin,” she cooed in northern dialect to an animated crowd of supporters in Chiang Rai. “I wonder if you could also love me, Thaksin’s little sister?”
At another appearance in a northeastern province, a group of a hundred schoolgirls rushed to greet her after her helicopter descended. They squealed as they pushed to get close to her, busily snapping photos from cell phones while holding up one index finger to show support for her party, which is No. 1 on the ballot.
‘Pretty, rich and smart’
Yingluck embodies the “suai, ruai, keng” – a Thai description of “pretty, rich and smart” woman.
She looks youthful, confident and at ease. Cameras love to capture her ceaseless smiles.
Her clout and celebrity aura match those of her major rival, Abhisit Vejjajiva, prime minister and leader of the ruling Democrat Party.
They are equally presentable: under 50, well-educated, and successful in professional and personal life (married with kids), which differentiate them from other candidates.
But while Abhisit’s Oxford education, wit, charm and impeccable British-accent English translate well with elites and the Bangkok middle class, these qualities often alienate him from residents of rural parts of the country, who make up the majority of the vote.
He may exude confidence and poise at international forums or during interviews, but when mingling with crowds, he’s stiff, appearing uneasy before his constituents.
Yingluck, on the other hand, is easier to connect with. Her provincial upbringing and self-made success at her family-run telecommunications and real estate companies make her likeable. Thai people feel that she and her brother understand the hardship and grievances of the poor.
Her supporters are aware she’s a political novice. But they also trust that she has an army of top-notched political pundits and economic advisers lurking behind the scene to support her and even coach her public speaking.
Her shrewdest campaign manager is Thaksin, the actual de facto leader of the party. He called Yingluck “my clone” and the Pheu Thai party readily responds by using a slogan, “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai implements.”
Yingluck isn’t the first Thaksin’s proxy premier candidate.
Thailand had two prime ministers who acted as Thaksin’s proxies, but they didn’t last very long.
Cantankerous Samak Sundaravej was forced by court order to resign overa conflict of interest linked to his cooking show on TV. His successor, Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law, had to step down after a constitutional court found his party guilty of electoral fraud.
By appointing Yingluck, Thaksin makes it clear that this election is about him. It’s his biggest battle yet against the country’s old power – the military and royal establishment – who tried to uproot him.
Reconciliation, not revenge
One of Yingluck’s Facebook profile pictures is that of her wearing a red hijab next to a Muslim woman who snapped their picture from her Blackberry.
The picture was taken during her campaign trail in the Islamic south, the Democrat’s political stronghold where Thaksin, leader from the north, could never quite penetrate.
The picture bodes well with Pheu Thai’s PR scheme to promote Yingluck as a baggage-free, fresh face leader who can heal the divisive country.
But her imminent victory at polls is making the military and the 2006 coup makers jittery.
Her Pheu Thai party says it will issue a blanket amnesty for all its allies and rivals charged in relation to the 2006 coup, which could pave the way for Thaksin’s whitewashing and triumphant return.
After all, Thaksin is the man the coup makers have put tremendous efforts in different devising to get rid of.
Critics fear the military will be tempted to stage another intervention. Thaksin’s return will be a big blow that can change the political landscape and dynamics of power in a significant way.
Yingluck tries to ease the fear by saying her first priority is the people’s wellbeing and moving the country forward, not one man’s fate.
But so far, she has never clearly stated her political opinions or standpoints. She lets Thaksin handle all the tough talks, in-depth interviews with foreign media from abroad. At home, she chooses to stick to scripts and keep her messages simple.
Besides her commitment to continue her brother’s populist policy legacy – i.e. free tablet PCs to a million school children, a wage hike, and low interest loans to villagers – it’s hard to say what kind of leader she will be.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t appear to bother her supporters, who remember what it was like when Thaksin ruled.