Thailand elects first female premier. New hope for political middle?

Thailand is set to place a woman with little political experience in charge in a transition of power that could soothe six years of political turmoil.

Vincent Yu/AP
Yingluck Shinawatra, opposition Pheu Thai Party's candidate for prime minister shakes hands with supporters as she celebrates after winning the election at the party headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday, July 3, 2011.

A landslide victory in Sunday’s election has put Yingluck Shinawatra on track to become Thailand’s first female prime minister as head of a four-party coalition. The result is a rebuke to the conservative ruling party and its military backers. The election represents a chance for the government to return to a political middle ground, after nearly six years of political turmoil.

Ms. Yingluck, a businesswoman who has never held public office, said Tuesday she would wait for the official results July 12 before allocating seats in her cabinet. Negotiations have begun between Pheu Thai Party (PTP), which won 265 out of 500 seats in parliament, and three smaller parties. The ruling Democrat Party will control only 159 seats after failing to make inroads into Thailand’s rural north and northeast.

Sunday’s election was the first since a 2007 vote, which was won by a forerunner to PTP that was later dissolved for election fraud, paving the way for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to take power. Mr. Abhisit struggled to assert his legitimacy in the face of hostile antigovernment “red shirt” demonstrations, which left more than 90 dead in Bangkok last year. On Sunday, he quickly conceded defeat and congratulated Yingluck, easing tensions over a handover of power, and resigned Monday as party leader.

Korbsak Sabhavasu, a Democrat campaign strategist, says the PTP has won a clear victory. “The election is really clear, which is good for Thailand. And we respect that,” he says.

Yingluck’s mandate to lead this divided country, however, may face challenges from opponents of her brother and mentor, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Some have begun to threaten legal action against her for alleged perjury during court hearings in 2008 over Mr. Thaksin’s wealth. She has denied any wrongdoing.

But much of that anger from a loud minority is directed at Thaksin, a businessman turned populist politician who was deposed in a 2006 coup after months of protests over his strongman-style rule and government corruption. Thaksin, who lives in self-exile in Dubai and was later convicted in absentia of abusing his power, has said he hopes to return home under a proposed political amnesty. Thaksin’s critics in the ruling elite oppose any effort to rehabilitate him and overturn his criminal conviction.

“If they start the amnesty, they will face a challenge from the [anti-Thaksin] yellow shirts,” says Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a research center in Bangkok.

Military intervention?

Thailand’s powerful military has signaled its willingness to work with the new government. Defense Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters Monday that “we are not going to intervene” in response to the question of a possible coup, a constant in Thailand’s political history.

“The Thaksinites are downplaying the rush to amnesty. If they’re smart, they’ll resist fiddling with the military budget and personnel for their own political survival,” says Michael Montesano, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Political pressure ahead for Yingluck

Yingluck also faces competing pressures within her own political camp. Leaders of the red-shirt movement, who galvanized public support for the party, want to be rewarded with cabinet positions. Any prominent role for these leaders could provoke royalist military commanders whose troops faced off against them last year. Several red shirts elected to parliament have been accused of defaming the monarchy, a sensitive issue for PTP officials who are keen to distance themselves from republican factions.

Red-shirt activists also want to see justice for those killed last year during demonstrations and have pressed the party to remember their sacrifice. Yingluck has said that the new government would seek to strengthen an independent fact-finding committee into the violence led by a former attorney general. A separate law-enforcement investigation has yet to bring anyone to justice for the deaths and has been criticized for its failure to investigate fully the role of the security forces.

Perhaps the biggest question, say analysts and diplomats, is how much of a say Thaksin will have in the cabinet’s formation and policy priorities. Within an hour of Sunday’s poll closure, Thai television stations went live to Thaksin in Dubai, burnishing his image as de facto party leader, while Yingluck was still hunkered down with her campaign team.

“Yingluck has to prove herself. Thaksin made a big mistake” by speaking out of turn, says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a columnist for The Nation, a conservative newspaper.

The economy and Cambodia

Advisers to the PTP say the new government will focus first on the economy, which has been buffeted by high food and fuel prices. Politicians showered voters with campaign promises of higher wages, lower taxes, and new infrastructure, raising concerns about public borrowing and the sustainability of welfare benefits.

Cambodia was quick to congratulate Yingluck on her victory and call for a peaceful settlement of a border dispute near an ancient Hindu temple. Thailand and Cambodian troops have clashed several times along the border, to the alarm of neighboring countries that have urged bilateral talks to contain the conflict.

The election is a boost for Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has openly allied with Thaksin and thumbed his nose at Abhisit’s government. But Mr. Kavi cautioned that any détente would be short-lived as nationalist feelings run high on both sides. “It will cool down on the surface. But in terms of hard negotiations, not at all,” he says.


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