Thailand's first female leader takes helm of divided nation

Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, faces the opposition of palace and military factions who see her brother as a usurper of royal privileges.

Sakchai Lalit/AP
Thailand's new Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra gives a Thai traditional 'wai' greeting at parliament in Bangkok Friday. Thai lawmakers chose US-educated businesswoman Yingluck as the country's first female prime minister on Friday.

A parliamentary vote Friday confirmed Yingluck Shinawatra as Thailand’s first female prime minister, capping a remarkable comeback by forces allied to her older brother, ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. But now Ms. Yingluck faces a struggle to overcome the deep social and economic divisions that have fed Thailand’s political warfare.

Yingluck led the opposition Puea Thai Party (PTP) to victory in July 2 elections, using her support in the countryside and grittier parts of urban Thailand to top outgoing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who appealed to middle-class voters and wealthier southern provinces.

Yingluck was chosen to lead the PTP by Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. The PTP was formed from the ashes of another pro-Thaksin party that was elected in 2007, only to be dissolved by a court the following year.

While Yingluck’s six-party coalition has a comfortable margin in parliament, her government is unlikely to complete its four-year term. Nationalist groups are already girding for possible street protests, which have become the face of Thailand’s chaotic democracy. Last year pro-Thaksin red-shirt demonstrators occupied parts of Bangkok for several weeks, provoking clashes with security forces that left over 90 dead.

Among her first challenges, say analysts, will be delivering on the PTP’s campaign promises, including higher wages, increased farm subsidies, and corporate tax cuts. Her advisers have tried to tamp down expectations amid inflation warnings from the central bank, which recently raised interest rates. Economists point out that unlike indebted industrial countries, Thailand can afford a further fiscal stimulus as its public debt is below 43 percent of gross domestic product.

Even if Yingluck can finesse these policy challenges, she will still face the implacable opposition of palace and military factions who see Thaksin as a usurper of royal privileges. Mounting criticism by red shirts of the monarchy, and a wave of arrests to silence them, has only hardened these opinions.

“The establishment sees (Yingluck) and Thaksin and everything they stand for as a challenge to their order,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute for Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Yingluck has never held public office and was virtually unknown before the election campaign. She previously served as an executive in Thaksin’s telecommunications group, which he sold to Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund in 2006.

Having helped elect the PTP, the red-shirt movement has an agenda that includes the freeing of scores of supporters jailed after the crackdown. Several red-shirt leaders charged for fomenting unrest were elected to parliament, and Thai newspapers have speculated that some may be rewarded with cabinet posts.

Keeping these factions happy will be another challenge for Yingluck, says Kan Yuenyong, director of Siam Intelligence Unit in Bangkok. Red shirt leaders have called for military and civilian leaders, including Mr. Abhisit, to be investigated over last year’s violence. “I think she can manage this in the short term, but in the long-term the red shirts will increasingly question why PTP isn’t doing more on the May clashes,” he says.

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