Leader faces tough job in uniting Thailand
Political novice must labor in brother’s shadow
BANGKOK - Parliament elected Yingluck Shinawatra as Thailand’s first female prime minister yesterday, a month after her party won a landslide victory over a coalition backed by the military and traditional elites.
Shinawatra, 44, a political novice, received 296 votes in the 500-seat Parliament, reflecting her party’s comfortable majority.
She is the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup. Thaksin - who now lives in Dubai, evading a jail term here for abuse of power - looms large as the kingmaker and impresario of the incoming administration and his sister’s Pheu Thai Party.
Her selection must be approved by King Bhumibol Adulyadej before she can officially take office. Thai news organizations have speculated she will announce her Cabinet in days.
Shinawatra must deliver on her party’s ambitious promises: a sharp increase in the minimum wage, the construction of high-speed rail lines, providing free tablet computers to primary school students, and revamping the country’s health care system, among many others.
But her greatest challenge may be uniting a fractured society, a task that eluded the four previous governments. Shinawatra has repeatedly sought to assuage the Thai military.
Pheu Thai won the July 3 election thanks to strong support from the north and northeastern parts of the country, where her brother’s policies - universal health care, a crackdown on drugs, and greater financing for local governments - proved very popular.
The losing Democrat Party is the oldest in Thailand and is generally supported by old-money business owners and the current military hierarchy. But Shinawatra appears to be forging her own alliance with some of the elite.
Her victory and that of her party has nonetheless sharpened divisions between rural and urban areas and started a debate over the significance of a woman leading the country.
Shinawatra, who is 18 years younger than her brother, has spent recent weeks denying stories in the Thai media that he is calling the shots from abroad, that he is helping choose the Cabinet and wheeling and dealing on her behalf. She has vowed to work independently.
“I will be myself,’’ Shinawatra told reporters last month.
She is a rarity in the often macho world of Thai politics, but as someone who has never held political office before, she is also one of the least experienced leaders to emerge in a major Asian country in decades. Her political career spans about 80 days.
When Pheu Thai named her as a candidate for prime minister, she was urged on by her brother. Some supporters also saw the election as a chance to send a protest message to the military and traditional elite, which had backed the departing coalition and was perceived as applying undue influence behind the scenes.
Despite her family’s fortune, Shinawatra was often portrayed in the campaign as an upcountry girl who was in touch with plebeian Thailand. But much of her life has been spent in the shadow of her brother.
In the 1970s, her brother obtained a master’s degree in criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University. A decade and a half later, his sister got a master’s degree in public administration an hour’s drive away, at Kentucky State University, a historically black institution amid horse farms and rolling hills.
Yingluck’s professional career began at her brother’s business empire, first at a company that produced telephone directories, then at AIS, the cellphone company, and finally a real estate company.