Historic vote

Print edition : July 29, 2011

Thailand: Yingluck Shinawatra wins the July 3 general elections to become the country's first woman Prime Minister.

in Singapore

Yingluck Shinawatra, opposition Puea Thai Party candidate, celebrating her victory at the party headquarters in Bangkok on July 3.-NICOLAS ASFOUR/AFP

CREATING history in the deeply polarised politics of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra emerged victorious in the July 3 general elections to become the first woman Prime Minister of the country, which has a constitutional monarch.

As the 44-year-old sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial but charismatic leader now in self-imposed exile, Yingluck plunged into the high-voltage Thai politics only a few weeks before the elections. Yet she hit the winning trail almost at the very start of her campaign for the top post. As an educated and successful professional in the world of business and corporate management, Yingluck exuded unusual charm and evoked high expectations. With the people beginning to favour her in the pre-election public opinion polls, largely on account of her credentials as a new face, pundits favoured her to defeat Abhisit Vejjajiva, a highly articulate leader with a deeply sullied record in office.

Significantly, however, and despite the pre-election opinion polls in her favour, the politically proactive Thai military elite made no noteworthy overture to her in the run-up to the elections. Instead, the military leaders rooted for Abhisit. A comment by a top Army leader at the height of the heated election campaign was widely interpreted as a call for a pro-Abhisit vote.

As a result, Yingluck's electoral triumph was immediately seen in wider South-East Asian circles as a popular slap on the face for the military elite.

Incumbent Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the ruling Democrat Party's candidate, addressing supporters at his party headquarters in Bangkok on July 3 after conceding defeat.-CHRISTOPHEAR CHAMBULIT/AFP

Yingluck did not bring any negative political baggage to the election campaign. And her brother Thaksin gave her huge name recognition. It hardly needs to be emphasised that Thaksin, overthrown by the Army in a bloodless coup in September 2006, has remained an unsolved riddle for the military leaders and their political allies and associates in the civilian domain. Viewed in this perspective, Yingluck really opened her political innings on a sticky wicket. At the same time, she started batting in a well-protected mode. Across a wide spectrum of Thais, with the poor and disadvantaged people at the core, Thaksin was (and still is) a larger-than-life hero even after his removal. Given this reality, though, Yingluck did, on balance, face a campaign-time challenge of convincing anti-Thaksin activists that she was a leader-in-the-making in her own right.

In the eyes of a number of observers, the elections were, in reality, a contest between two proxies: Abhisit on behalf of the military elite and Yingluck acting for Thaksin. Unsurprisingly, during the campaign, the Abhisit camp did raise the spectre of Thaksin, who was convicted and sentenced in absentia in a graft case under the watch of the coup masters who toppled him and their political allies. As a result, as Thais went to the polls, Thaksin remained in voluntary exile but as a proclaimed fugitive who would need an amnesty to be able to live in Thailand with or without a new political career of his own. And Yingluck, for her part, kept her critics guessing during the campaign about her real position, as a potential Prime Minister, on the controversial issue of amnesty for her elder brother.

Throughout the campaign, Thaksin, too, tried to stay above the controversies of his personal agenda. He sent out mixed signals about the exact extent of his political influence over his sister. He did, however, portray her as a person with courage and determination similar to his own. On election day, therefore, he first telephoned her to wish her well. Thereafter, as the exit polls showed her heading for a decisive mandate, he congratulated her. And he pointedly said her tough work would now begin. In this milieu of Thaksin's protective political umbrella for Yingluck and the Thai military's huge shadow over Abhisit, the message from the election mandate has three dimensions.

First, the Thai people have told their military elite to stay off democratic politics, which rightly belongs in the civilian domain. At the height of the campaign, suspicions about the Thai Army were so intense that its leaders felt compelled to disclaim any move to invade neighbouring Cambodia over the issue of ownership of a mediaeval Hindu temple and thereby create a pretext for cancelling the general elections altogether. Even as the Army affirmed its willingness to let the elections go ahead as scheduled, public opinion surveys were already projecting varying degrees of a setback for the Army-Abhisit camp.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.-KAMRAN JEBERILI/AP

Despite being a civilian leader in his own right, Abhisit badly spoilt his copybook in 2010 when he repeatedly sought the Army's help to manage and finally snuff out, through an astonishing military crackdown, a fiery groundswell of popular support for genuine democracy. Pro-Thaksin sentiments, articulated by the red-shirted activists of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, were an integral aspect of the popular unrest. While Bangkok, the capital, was the scene of the May 2010 military crackdown, pro-democracy sentiments were felt across the country. In the event, as Abhisit sought to overcome the crisis in 2010, he was seen to be presiding over what a scholar, Michael K. Connors, described as an emergency state.

The second message from the elections is about the enduring image of Thaksin as a caring leader of the poor masses, notwithstanding his own capitalist interests and autocratic methods against his political opponents and the enemies of the state. Despite the anti-Thaksin movement in the name of the People's Alliance for Democracy, its yellow-shirted organisers have failed to erase the former Prime Minister as an enduring factor in contemporary Thai politics. The Army-Abhisit camp has, therefore, not succeeded in capitalising on judicial dissolutions of successive political parties with direct or indirect links to Thaksin.

Pro-welfare manifesto

The third message, essentially a corollary of the other two, is that the agenda of a qualitatively better life for the poor and the disadvantaged is central to Thailand's future as a unified nation. The pro-welfare manifesto of Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party, inclusive of populist measures such as the free supply of computers and credit cards to select target groups, has won her much appreciation. In the process, Abhisit's attempt to give his Democrat Party a caring image failed to win hearts if only because his supporters a hold-all coalition of different types of elitists (as different from the elite) and royalists (as different from the revered monarch) could not inspire the masses. Yingluck, with the likelihood of commanding at least 263 seats in the 500-member new House of Representatives as this is written, has two unique advantages. These are her lineage as a Thai-Chinese and her likely position as the first woman leader at the highest level. The Thai-Chinese are well integrated into the overall society in the kingdom. In what may be seen as a natural line of thinking in this context, she has pledged to integrate the alienated Thai Muslims into the mainly Buddhist society of the entire country. Towards this end, she has promised some form of autonomy to the mainly Muslim pockets in southern Thailand.

Supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra celebrating the victory in Bangkok on July 3.-NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP

As for the advantage of being Thailand's first woman leader, Yingluck would do well to study the challenges that the earlier women leaders of two other South-East Asian countries faced. Each of these countries has had its own brand of military dominance at one stage or another. The political careers of Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines and Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia are the more obvious examples that Yingluck could usefully look at. Aung San Suu Kyi (in opposition) in the still-military-controlled Myanmar cannot be ignored, either, as an example to study in South-East Asia.

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