Good luck to Yingluck

On July 3, 2011, the Thai elections resulted in a resounding victory for the Puea Thai Party, headed by the youngest sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Yingluck Shinawatra, born in 1967, is the youngest sibling of the former Prime Minister and will be the first woman Prime Minister of Thailand.

Ms Shinawatra is one of the youngest leaders to emerge in the country after a period of five years, 2006 onwards, when there was a reversal to the consolidation of Thai democracy.
Thailand, which had emerged from military rule in 1992, suffered a setback with the 2006 coup. Since 2006, all attempts to form a democratic government have been futile because of the stand-off between the “Red Shirts” (representing the lower classes and the urban poor) and the “Yellow Shirts” (the elites and middle classes).
The Puea Thai Party is derived from the erstwhile Thai Rak Thai party, which was formed and led by Mr Shinawatra from 2001 to 2006. The party won both elections, in 2001 and 2005. But the military coup of 2006 abruptly ended the growth of both the Thai Rak Thai and its leader, Mr Shinawatra, who is now in exile.
It is widely believed that given the political turmoil in Thailand, there was a pre-election arrangement that the newly elected Puea Thai Party would be allowed to form the government. Given the stand-off between the supporters of Mr Shinawatra and the Democrat Party led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has enjoyed the backing of the Army, there is apprehension that a smooth transition is unlikely even though the Army has agreed to allow the rightful winners of the July 3 elections to take over.
Interestingly, in an election campaign that threw up many political formations, the Puea Thai Party, headed by Ms Shinawatra, managed to garner 265 of the 500 seats. The ruling Democrat Party has come second with only 159 seats.
Following the electoral victory, Ms Shinawatra is looking to garner further support from five other parties and form a coalition with a total of 299 parliamentary seats.
Surprisingly, within a span of just six weeks, Ms Shinawatra has moved from being a total political novice to Thailand’s Prime Minister-in-waiting. She has a business background and very little political experience or acumen. But Mr Shinawatra has declared her his protégé. Like her brother, Ms Shinawatra has made populist promises, while simultaneously calling for national reconciliation in a deeply divided polity. Her popularity is linked to her family name, which was her campaign ticket. She was seen as giving credibility to a name that has been linked to controversy. Ironically, it was her looks and appearance that received the most attention from the media, leaving little room for a debate on her political experience, or lack thereof.
One of the challenges that lie ahead for Ms Shinawatra is the question of amnesty for her exiled brother currently living in Dubai. In the name of promoting national reconciliation, she has called for amnesty for her brother, the former Prime Minister convicted of charges of corruption and sedition. A tricky factor in the issue of amnesty for Mr Shinawatra will be leveraging the political class that despises Mr Shinawatra. This will be by far the most critical test for Ms Shinawatra. Whether she is able to break away from the shadow of her brother or stay with it remains to be seen. However, given the weight of his influence, a breakaway seems unlikely.
There are also deeper economic challenges for the country. The elections came at a time when inflation in Thailand is high and has begun to affect the rural areas. Some of the populist measures promised by Ms Shinawatra, such as a raise in the minimum wages, are unrealistic. In her campaign, Ms Shinawatra promised a 40 to 75 per cent hike in wages, a move which will further push the economy towards turmoil. Also, investments are likely to fall if she goes ahead with the populist measures she has promised, including the distribution of iPads to eight million school children.
There is also uncertainty over the manner in which the Army will be accommodated. In a country where the Army has ruled for 60 years, from 1932 to 1992, the stakes for the military in the political outcome are significant. The role of the Army in the crackdown on Red Shirt protesters last year led to the deaths of 91 people. One of the reasons why the question of amnesty and national reconciliation remains ambiguous is that the Army also needs to be tried for its excesses. Most crucial in all this will be the role of the monarchy itself. In a country where monarchy is revered and seen as the highest authority, the aging monarch’s influence over political outcomes cannot be ruled out.
One of the areas where the Puea Thai Party has not done well is in the troubled regions of southern Thailand where the movement for a separate state is being spearheaded by Muslim groups of Malay ethnicity. Successive governments have made little effort to devolve power to the south which recently witnessed the emergence of Malay Muslim candidates who wanted a regional representation in the elections. However, success in the south went to candidates from the Democrat Party who did not advocate any form of regional autonomy or power sharing.
Ms Shinawatra has tough days ahead. She will have to show willingness to promote national reconciliation in a country that has been politically divided between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts. While a semblance of class struggle is visible in this divide, between the middle classes and elites on one hand and the lower classes and urban poor on the other, the underlying fact is that it was a struggle for political power between two large business groups that claimed to represent two different groups of the Thai population.
On closer scrutiny it is clear that the divides are far more complex than the mere appearances of a class struggle. Given the complexities that mark the political landscape in Thailand, the agenda set for Thailand’s first woman Prime Minister seems daunting.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an Associate Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi

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