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Thailand's first female PM to take job, with big brother watching

Yingluck Shinawatra, the leader of Pheu Thai Party, talks with reporters upon her arrival at a hotel for a meeting with leaders of the coalition partners on Monday, July 4, 2011 in Bangkok.

Apichart Weerawong/AP/Apichart Weerawong/AP

Throughout her first 24 hours as Thailand's new prime minister-elect, Yingluck Shinawatra tried her best to stay on message: Hers would be a government that would pursue the country's twin needs of national unity and economic development.

But everywhere she turned, the same question kept coming up: How quickly would she move to grant some form of amnesty to Thailand's fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who just happens to also be her older brother and political patron?

The amnesty issue cuts to the crux of Ms. Yingluck's biggest political weakness, the widespread belief that the 44-year-old businesswoman, who has never before held elected office, is little more than her brother's proxy. While that's fine with the Red Shirt base, and indeed with Mr. Thaksin who has called her his "clone," an effort to open the door to his return would likely restart Thailand's cycle of political turmoil.

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Amnesty for her brother is a highly sensitive question Ms. Yingluck would likely rather deal with once the excitement caused by her Pheu Thai party's landslide has died down and she has some time to establish herself as the first woman to occupy the prime minister's office. But it's one the media in Thailand (recently hostile to Mr. Thaksin) are obsessed with, and one her party's core supporters – who cast their ballots for Pheu Thai largely out of loyalty to Mr. Thaksin – want to see resolved as soon as possible.

Reached by telephone in Dubai, where he lives in self-exile to avoid a corruption conviction, Mr. Thaksin inadvertently piled on the pressure. He acknowledged that he badly wants to come home, and dreamt of returning to Thailand in time to attend his daughter Pinthongta's wedding in December. "That's just a wish. Many wishes may not come true. A lot will be decided by the reconciliation [process]" Mr. Thaksin said. No pressure, sis.

Allowing Mr. Thaksin to return home would be popular with the party's base, who would see it as the final step in undoing the 2006 military coup that ousted him from office and set off a chain of often violent protests. Those climaxed last year with the Thai military exchanging fire with Mr. Thaksin's red-shirted supporters in the centre of Bangkok, in a one-sided battle that left 91 people dead.

But it would also anger large swathes of Thai society, including many among the top army brass, who view Mr. Thaksin as both corrupt and responsible for provoking last year's bloody violence.

Concerns that the Thai army, which has staged 18 coups in the last seven decades, would oppose Pheu Thai's victory eased on Monday when the outgoing defence minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan, said the army would accept a government headed by Ms. Yingluck. "I've said this several times," he told the Thai news media, "we are not going to intervene."

Even though Pheu Thai won a convincing 265 of 500 seats Sunday, the 44-year-old Ms. Yingluck moved quickly to further solidify her claim to power Monday by luring four smaller parties into a coalition that gave her another 34 seats in parliament and a claim to broader representation beyond the Red Shirt faithful.

The outgoing Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, stepped down from his post as head of the Democrat Party after leading them to a distant second-place finish with just 159 seats. It was expected, however, that the party would turn down the offer and ask the charismatic Mr. Abhisit to stay on despite the defeat.

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The issue of amnesty for the 61-year-old Mr. Thaksin could quickly undo the goodwill Ms. Yingluck is just starting to build. "If they go for amnesty, it's not going to be easy," said Surat Horachaikul, an assistant professor of political science at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "There would undoubtedly be more protests, and people would put such a bill before the Constitutional Court to get it annulled."

At the buzzing Pheu Thai headquarters Monday, party leaders were trying desperately to talk about anything else, a difficult task given the party is the successor to the political machine Mr. Thaksin built and led to back-to-back election wins in 2001 and 2005 before he was deposed by the coup.

He was later convicted in absentia of corruption and abuse of power and sentenced to two years in jail, but still remains wildly popular among the country's rural poor, who see him as the first Thai politician to focus on their needs by introducing countryside development programs and affordable health care.

Pheu Thai's deputy leader, Kanawat Wasinsungworn, said in an interview that the party's first move in office would be to roll out an economic stimulus package that would see the minimum wage boosted, minimum prices guaranteed to rice farmers, and the corporate tax rate cut from 30 per cent to 23 per cent. Another priority would be to back a truth and reconciliation commission investigating the recent political violence that was formed by Mr. Abhisit's government, but which has seen its efforts stall.

Amnesty, Mr. Kanawat said, would have to wait. "It's impossible to make an act or a law just for one person. It has to be a law for everybody," he said, adding that an amnesty offered to all sides might be one of the suggestions of the truth and reconciliation commission.

Speaking from Dubai, where he lives in a two-storey villa set among the golf courses where he spends much of his time, Mr. Thaksin said only that it was "a good relief" to watch his sister lead the party to such a convincing victory. "She will be like me" he said. "Hard working and really committed to what has been said to the public."

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How Thaksin Shinawatra won over rural Thailand

Amid the banana plantations and rice paddies east of Bangkok stands a row of two-storey pastel-coloured homes with red clay roofs, a style more reminiscent of the southern Mediterranean than rural Thailand.

The 140 row houses known as the Kittychai Villas are hardly as luxurious as their name suggests. They're really just simple concrete homes with an exotic paint job. But the construction four years ago of the urban-style dwellings – and the influx of migrants from the north and northeast of the country anxious to live closer to the economic magnet of the nearby capital city – marked another step in the remarkable transformation of rural Thailand over the past decade.

It's a change for the better that residents of places such as Nong Jok credit former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra with, and why areas like this have propelled the controversial tycoon and his allies into power in four consecutive elections since 2001. It was lingering appreciation for Mr. Thaksin – who now lives in exile in Dubai after being ousted in a 2006 military coup – that helped propel the Pheu Thai party led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to a landslide majority in the most recent vote Sunday.

"I voted for Pheu Thai because I like Thaksin. The truth is that he does things quickly, and for the benefit of the grassroots people," said Leelawadee Srisupan, a 47-year-old grandmother who runs a convenience store out of the front of the home she shares with five family members in the Kittychai Villas.

Like many in Nong Jok, her family hails from the north of the country, but moved toward Bangkok to pursue better opportunities. "In this village we have taxi drivers, vendors, people who work in companies," she said. "Everybody supports Pheu Thai."

Mr. Thaksin first won over people like Ms. Leelawadee with rural-focused programs that provided low-interest loans to farmers and small businesses, as well as subsidized universal health care. Today she says she's intrigued by Pheu Thai's promises to raise the minimum wage, and to guarantee a wage floor to those with university degrees. If the latter promise is delivered, Ms. Leelawadee's son, who has a degree in physical education, would see the salary he's paid working for a detergent making company double from its current 7,500 baht a month.

"It's a victory for the poor over the rich," fruit seller Malee Pungchalern, who lives in a small house across the highway from Kittychai Villas, said of the election results. "The people in Bangkok have money anyway, and Thaksin's policies don't help them."

That truth was on sharp display in Sunday's vote, which saw Pheu Thai sweep the north and northeast of the country, as well as the working-class fringes of Bangkok. Meanwhile, the Democrat Party of outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva won every seat in the centre of Bangkok, where Mr. Thaksin is reviled as a corrupt populist.

Pheu Thai also failed to win a single seat in the south of the country, where Mr. Thaksin's time in office is best remembered for the violence and extrajudicial killings of the "war on drugs" he launched while prime minister.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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