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Thai Election Drama: The New Face of Yingluck Thaksin

Monday, September 26th, 2011

Thailand’s tourism bureau may boast that the country is the land of smiles, but its often tumultuous politics — spanning coups and corruption — has just as often raised frowns. After the dramatic July 3rd national election, supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra are beaming.

Her Puea Thai Party claimed a resounding 265 out of 500 seats over the Democratic Partys’ 159 and their ousted prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The election galvanized the nation and won much international attention partly because of its soap opera quality. Yingluck is a rookie to politics. She is also the younger sister of Thaksin Shinawtra, the former leader of the Puea Thai Party who was deposed in a military coup in 2006.

What led to Yingluck’s victory? To start, her Democratic Party nemesis was weak in the central area that grows rice. Party strategists offered some ideas like a price insurance scheme for rice, but it failed to inspire voters. Also, the Bhum Jai Thai party was broadly aligned with the Democrats. It could not assert itself in the populous northeast. Third, economics was also a factored. Experts recall that the incumbent Democrats last year enjoyed a high growth rate. Vejjajiva mistimed the election, however, calling it when higher prices appeared. In contrast, the Puea Thai policies include a 40 percent-75 percent jump in the minimum wage.

But what about the star, Yingluck? She offered the public populism, an emphasis on national reconciliation. Akin to Corazon Aquino in the Philippines in the mid 1980s, she traded on her prestigious family name. As with the latter, Yingluck and her fans insist that she is a fresh, dynamic and at- tractive face in a country where many are cynical about politicians.

As she exults, Yingluck must ponder some major problems and will find that winning an election can be simpler than governing. To start, she aims for a coalition of five par- ties that would hold 299 seats. But the elec- tion authorities are examining 190 charges of fraud. If upheld, it would significantly lower the seats she controls or influences. Also, any partnership government incorpo- rating so many parties will be fractious and unstable.

To be sure, some political factors re- mained consistent in this poll. For instance, Pro-Thaksin parties won in the north and northeast areas that have the most people. However, in Bangkok, which dominates national life to the exclusion of any other town, and in the less dense south, the Dem- ocrats prevailed. Therefore, supporters of Yingluck’s populism interpret her rise as the voice of the masses lashing out at the pro-Democratic city elites.

Before the election, nay sayers fretted that the anti-Thaksin elements called the “yellow shirts” — in contrast to pro Thak- sin “red shirts” — might engage in street violence. Instead, the transition from the Democratic Party to the Peau Thai Party looks smooth as of this writing. But experts caution that trouble might arise because the Yingluck’s divisive platform includes pro- moting national unity through an amnesty for Thaksin. He was convicted of corrup- tion charges and sentenced to two years in jail, which he has not served. In fact, when Thaksin labeled his sibling “my clone,” it sluiced the tide of his supporters her way but also also ensured that an tsunami of op- ponents would engulf her — Thaksin has many enemies.

Dr. Michael Montesano is a visiting re- search fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. He asserts that, “the course of democracy in Thailand is in- teresting. Even during long decades of mili- tary domination of politics, Thais came to value elections as the basis for legitimate government. Thaksin succeeded in con- necting elections to delivering what voters wanted. Thai democracy is very strong, but so are its enemies. In recent years, the open statements in favor of a profoundly undemocratic order made by the yellow side of Thai politics have been astonishing for the twenty-first century.”

What are the economic implications? Before the poll this spring, global investment banks were nervous that Yingluck would prevail and her populism would trigger the conservative military’s response. They advised clients to get out of the stock market. It fell by more than US$1.5 billion. But the market surged by just under 5 percent when it concluded that the men in uniform would not react.

As for Yingluck’s left wing ideas, e.g. a huge hike in the lowest wage, experts predict this will be financially and bureaucratically arduous. Can she really give iPads to the nation’s 8 million students? Can she truly meet her pledge on rice to pay close to twice the present market rates? HSBC, the investment bank, concludes all these policies will “come back to bite” if they decrease Thailand’s attractiveness for foreign investors.

A related wrinkle is the clash between fundamentals and growth. It pits the Bank of Thailand against Yingluck. The former planned to increase interest rates from 3 percent to 3.75 percent to contain inflation, an impediment to Yingluck’s desire to dole out money. Montesano warns that “Phuea Thai’s heavy spending policies risk exacerbating already serious inflation. This could quickly...turn popular sentiment against any government.”

On foreign affairs, Montesano predicts that “the end of a Democrat Party government means better relations between Thailand and Cambodia, good for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The Abhisit government’s let itself be dragged into a crisis with an ASEAN neighbors because of its weak domestic position and resistance to serious multilateral efforts to solve it. Still, the replacement of Abhisit will not bring unity and resolve to ASEAN in areas like the disputes over the South China Sea.”

How should Washington respond to Yingluck’s rise? “It must accurately grasp,” Montesano says, “the deep changes in Thai society during the last fifteen years and end its knee-jerk support for Thai elites whom it assumes are liberal just because their members are well educated and can speak English.”

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