Thailand was swept on Sunday by a “red tide” that drove the Democrat Party and its coalition partners from power and put in their place the Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck Shinawatra, now on the verge of becoming the country’s first female prime minister.
Thailand’s military eased concerns of renewed turmoil Monday by accepting the sweeping electoral win of toppled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s party, while his sister vowed to reconcile the deeply-divided nation as its first female prime minister. This move is expected to guarantee calm in the kingdom.
Yingluck Shinawatra – younger sister of fugitive former leader Thaksin Shinawatra – is set to become Thailand’s first female prime minister after her Puea Thai party won a majority of 265 out of 500 seats in Sunday’s poll.
Incumbent prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrats won just 159 seats.
The result is a remarkable comeback for supporters of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup that sparked years of political crisis and violent protest in the country.
In a few short weeks, Yingluck Shinawatra has been transformed from a reluctant politician into an aspiring, confident leader – a statesman-like figure with a feminine touch.
“Brothers and sisters ka, farm prices are low, yes? You are suffering, yes?” Looking determined, empathetic, sympathetic, “Brothers and sisters ka, give me a chance. Give your vote to number 1,” Shinawatra stated.
By nature, Yingluck Shinawatra doesn’t fit the characterization of a policy wonk, a glib debater or a witty jokester, personalities who can be found by the score among the country’s parliamentarians.
But she may very well become Thailand’s first female prime minister thanks to a brilliant marketing campaign scripted by a legion of political advisers who have helped map every speech, every wave, and every message to highlight her strengths while playing down her weaknesses.
Advice led first and foremost by her elder brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who throughout the campaign has held weekly teleconferences to map strategy and more importantly, reassure his demure sister that yes, she can lead the country.
Just two months ago, Ms. Yingluck was still publicly denying any aspirations to lead Pheu Thai, only changing her mind at the very last minute out of familial loyalty rather than any personal ambition. Her early days on the campaign trail were carefully scripted to avoid any protracted debates on policy issues of substance, minefields that her handlers well understood could backfire given Ms. Yingluck’s inexperience in government and politics.
The party’s plan? Stay on message. Emphasize cohesion and sympathy for the people’s suffering. Highlight the party’s platform, a package of well-crafted policies aimed at reaching all the key interest groups – farmers, graduates, the urban poor, and the struggling middle class. Bemoan the woes of rising inflation and the seeming lack of accomplishments by the Democrats over the past two years.
Off-camera, Ms. Yingluck has been a dutiful student. Her speeches have become more polished, more refined and more emotive with each passing day, thanks to greater familiarity and the confidence gained as the front-runner.
Party insiders say that over the past several weeks, Ms. Yingluck has transformed from a once reluctant candidate to a truly self-confident one, confidence that rose with each day from polls showing support was forthcoming not just due to Pheu Thai’s platform, boredom with the Democrats, or her elder brother’s shadow, but from a genuine fondness among voters for the soft-spoken businesswoman.
Ms. Yingluck originally turned down overtures from the party as she did not welcome the intense scrutiny which a life lived in the public eye entails.
“I’m not ready to give up my life, and particularly my son’s happiness, in exchange for the top spot on the party list,” she told one Pheu Thai insider earlier this year.
But after heavy courting by her brother and other party lieutenants, she decided to take up the banner in a decision literally made hours before her formal public announcement.
Ms. Yingluck, the youngest of nine children of Lert and Yindee Shinawatra, received her first degree in political science from Chiang Mai University in 1988 and a post-graduate degree from Kentucky State University two years later.
Staunchly guarded about her private life, Ms. Yingluck has one son with her common-law husband, Anusorn Amornchat, the managing director of M Link Asia, a mobile phone distributor partly owned by her sister Yaowapa.
Her work experience has been gained entirely with Shinawatra-family businesses, starting at Shinawatra Directories Co., a company set up to offer telephone directory services.
In 2002, two years after brother Thaksin swept the polls to start his first term, Ms. Yingluck became president of Advanced Info Service, the country’s largest mobile operator and the crown jewel of the Shinawatra fortune.
Ms. Yingluck maintained the post until 2006, when the Shinawatras sold off their stake in Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. She then moved to a separate family business, becoming president of property developer SC Asset.
Past colleagues and subordinates describe her as “pleasant,” “sunny,” and “nice,” a contrast of sorts from the more cutthroat, wily, and resolute character of elder brother Thaksin. “She really does have a positive attitude, one that makes people feel naturally comfortable around her,” said one AIS executive.
While some critics may deride Ms. Yingluck’s qualifications as skin deep, there is no question that for a broad swathe of the population, her sunny, youthful disposition offers a refreshing alternative for voters bored with the masculine godfather caricatures that have dominated national politics for decades.
But a rosy demeanor, beauty, feminity, and a background absent of missteps still required considerable shaping if Ms. Yingluck was to triumph on the election stump. Thaksin and other senior party figures quickly mapped out a plan to help mold her image into one worthy of Government House. Veteran politician Sudarat Keyuraphan, a Thaksin confidant dating back to their days together with the Palang Dharma Party, brought in a team of experts each given the task of building up her statesmanship.
Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisal, former head of iTV, a now-defunct news channel once under the Shin Group, was asked to manage media relations and campaign rallies.
Former industry minister Mingkwan Saengsuwan and former deputy prime minister Olarn Chaipravat were given the job of handling economic policies and strategies, while telecom executive Tom Kruesophon helped craft an international media campaign and meetings with overseas diplomats.
Actor and politician Yuranan “Sam” Pamornmontri was brought in to help guide Ms. Yingluck in coping with reporters and putting forward a positive public image. Even her body language was re-examined and reshaped – the way she gives a wai, the traditional Thai greeting, was made more informal on the stump to help convey a more friendly, open image.
Each Monday, the “big four” – Mrs. Sudarat, Mr. Niwatthamrong, Mr. Mingkwan, and Mr. Olarn – sat with Ms. Yingluck in teleconferences with Thaksin, no mean campaign strategist himself, to discuss the progress of the campaign.
Economic issues, and widespread concern about rising food and energy costs, took center stage in many of her speeches. In media interviews, Ms. Yingluck was much more coy when probed on policy details or her stance on more delicate issues such as an amnesty to bring her brother back to Thailand or the role of the “red shirts” in last May’s Bangkok riots.
Party strategists quickly ruled out any head-to-head debate with Abhisit Vejjajiva, knowing that his polished wit and rhetoric would almost assuredly put Ms. Yingluck at a disadvantage in any discussion on policy.
Her last campaign stop was her biggest yet, a rally before tens of thousands of people at Rajamangala stadium.
Hair matted with rain, voice pitched high. and hoarse after weeks of speeches, she delivered her lines without any major missteps before a forgiving, adoring crowd. The speech looked beyond the election to outline a “2020 Vision,” a roadmap running into the next decade – for Pheu Thai, victory was at hand.
Yesterday morning, Ms. Yingluck rose early to cast her ballot at Wat Klong Lamchiang in Bung Kum district, then returned home to wait for the exit polls. By the mid-afternoon, it was clear Pheu Thai was heading for a landslide.
The path is now open for Ms. Yingluck to become Thailand’s 28th prime minister and first female premier in history.
In the meantime, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced his resignation as leader of the Democrat Party on Monday morning.
The outgoing prime minister’s announcement follows the crushing defeat inflicted by the rival Pheu Thai Party in the 2011 general election on Sunday.
“I’ve decided to resign, because I could not lead my party to victory in the election,” Mr. Abhisit said. Democrat executive members will meet to select a new party leader within 90 days, as the law requires, he said.
Before the election, Mr. Abhisit said he would step down as Democrat leader if his party won fewer seats than in the previous general election. The unofficial election result shows that the Democrats won 159 seats yesterday. In 2007, the party won 164 seats.
Democrat spokesman Buranat Samutarak said the Democrats still have strong confidence in Mr. Abhisit but it is not known if he will return as party leader. Mr. Buranat said despite the election upset, the Democrat Party will continue to perform its duties with full responsibility to the people.
Under the party’s regulations, since Mr. Abhisit has resigned as party leader, and all 18 members of the executive committee have also lost their party posts.
Mr. Abhisit will hold the post of caretaker party leader until the party holds a general assembly to elect a new leader and executive committee within 90 days. No date has been fixed, the spokesman said.
He said party members in the provinces were shocked by the news of Mr. Abhisit’s resignation. Although they knew he would show responsibility, they did not expect he would do this so abruptly.
Former Bangkok governor Apirak Kosayodhin, who had been tipped as a possible successor to Mr. Abhisit, declined to comment when asked whether he would accept nomination for the job.
Mr. Apirak said he would rather leave it to the party to decide.
M.r Abhisit also received praise from the Pheu Thai Party. Pheu Thai core member, Wattana Muangsuk, praised him for his work and fighting spirit during the election campaign.
Mr. Wattana said Mr. Abhisit helped make the competition fair and transparent throughout the campaign period.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has said a calm orderly general election in the country, will have a positive impact on the tourism industry.
The last thing the Thailand tourist sector needs is more political violence. Last year, anti-government protests in Bangkok turned violent, and over 92 people died in clashes with the troops. All countries issued a travel advisory for Thailand, and tourist arrivals dropped almost to zero in many regions.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand believes that industry can deal with such problems if this happens again, just like last time. But the tour operators aren’t that confident. They believe that Thailand could have the same fate as Egypt and Tunisia if violence erupted again.
So far this year, tourist arrivals to Thailand has increased 24.4 percent thanks to tourists from the United States, Russia, England, China, and Japan.
TAT expects a total of 16.5 million tourists from across the world to visit Thailand this year, provided the situation in the country remains constant, according to the Bangkok Post.
The majority of tourists arriving in the country are from East and Southeast Asia. The highest number of European visitors to the country is from Russia, followed by the UK, Germany, France, and Switzerland. The major stop is Pattaya.
Since the military accepted the election, it should be a guarantee for calm and peace.
Gothom Arya, a veteran peace and human rights advocate is a former electrical engineering professor at Chulalongkorn University and a former member of the first election commission.
“For me, this election concerns the political cartography of the nation. The south remains largely with the Democrats, the north is the opposite,” said Mr. Gothom.
Thailand has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since the monarchy ceded absolute power in 1932 in favor of a parliamentary system.
Since the King took over, he has had more than 20 prime ministers serve under him.
“The central point remains about control of different political landlords. This is politics as it has been. There is not a very big difference from a year ago,” said Mr. Gothom, “A coup would be counterproductive. The economy is going ahead despite the political problem.
“It is finding its own way. The king will sleep soundly, because he is above politics. Whoever is there will respect the monarchy.”