PHIBUN MANGSAHAN, Thailand (AP) — The woman who could become Thailand’s first female prime minister kicks off every campaign stop asking electrified crowds if they miss her brother — a billionaire ex-premier overthrown by the military five years ago.
“If you love my brother,” Yingluck Shinawatra asks in a carefully choreographed routine, “will you give his youngest sister a chance?”
As this fractious Asian nation edges closer to July 3 elections and what many fear could be another era of unrest, the answer, at least in this rural opposition heartland northeast of Bangkok, is a roaring “YES!” every time.
The 44-year-old Yingluck is a neophyte who has never held office. But in the space of just a few weeks she has catapulted to near rock star status on Thailand’s political stage, becoming the opposition’s main contender in the vote.
Yingluck and her party make no secret of the reason why: Her bid rests almost entirely on the legacy of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother-in-exile who calls her his “clone.”
Before he was toppled in a 2006 coup — allegedly for corruption, abuse of power and insulting the nation’s revered king — the super-rich Thaksin won over Thailand’s rural underclass by introducing social welfare policies to benefit the poor. But his opponents, including members of the urban middle class and elite, saw him as a threat to democracy and their own privileges.
The campaign to resurrect Thaksin’s legacy is seen as part of a societal struggle between the powerful and the powerless, between an entrenched army-backed elite establishment that backs the monarchy and an impoverished swath of rural Thailand that feels left out.
Bouyed by formidable charisma and an easy, photogenic smile, Yingluck is trying to galvanize poor rural voters — as her brother did — with pledges to raise pensions, boost the minimun wage and enact universal health care.
Local polls have consistently put her Pheu Thai party in the lead, but the contest “could simply accelerate Thailand’s political meltdown,” Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, wrote in a recent analysis.
The vote to win a majority of 500 parliamentary seats is largely seen as a race between Pheu Thai and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat party. Kurlantzich said that “any of the plausible poll scenarios — an opposition victory nullified by another coup, or a Democrat win put together through backroom coalition building — is likely to inflame segments of Thailand, causing more unrest in what was once one of the most stable countries in Asia.”
Haunting the ballot are last year’s massive street protests against Abhisit’s government, which killed at least 90 people, injured nearly 2,000 and paralyzed the city before leaving it in flames.
In a country where the army has staged 18 successful or attempted coups since the 1930s, the last of which toppled her brother, Yingluck knows to tread carefully.
Last week, powerful army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha issued an ominous but vague warning urging voters not to repeat the outcome of past elections — the last three of which were won by Thaksin, an ally, and his brother-in-law. Each poll was reversed by military force or by controversial legal rulings.
Asked if she feared that the military would step in to block her from power if she wins, Yingluck told The Associated Press in an interview: “I don’t think it will happen again.” Prayuth’s warning, she said, was merely a call to “make sure the country is peaceful.”
Yingluck has pointedly said she would not avenge her brother’s ouster and would not prosecute the 2006 coup plotters, including Prayuth. Most of her public appearances — succinct, simplistic and careful — are clearly designed to avert controversy.
Holding the election was a key demand last year of the so-called Red Shirt protesters, tens of thousands of whom poured into Bangkok from the provinces and shut down parts of it by camping out downtown for two months.
One of them, civil servant Nutwara Autehaloek, said during one of Yingluck’s speeches in Trakarn Pheutphon that “if history repeats itself” — if the opposition legally wins but is prevented from governing — “we will return to Bangkok in greater numbers than before.”
Although she has never said so, many believe Yingluck plans to introduce a general amnesty to pardon Thaksin, who lives in Dubai to escape serving a prison term at home on corruption convictions he says were politically motivated. Abhisit has condemned that possibility as a way to whitewash the former prime minister’s criminal record.
Yingluck said there was no fixed plan for an amnesty, and it could only happen “if a majority of people accept it.”
There “cannot be any special treatment for someone, not even my brother,” she said, adding that the country’s interests would come before those of her family. “If we have amnesty, everyone will get the same treatment.”
Yingluck insists she is not her brother’s puppet, but one of her party’s primary slogans is startlingly clear about who pulls the strings in the organization: “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts.”
Thaksin has referred to his sister as “my clone.” But that only means they are the same “in terms of logical thinking, management style, and the way I act,” Yingluck said. “In terms of my opinion, my position, and my leadership, these are my own.”
The two speak several times a week, Yingluck said. “He just wants to give me support.”
Yingluck has steered clear of debating Abhisit, a substantive forum the veteran politician would likely use to exploit her political naivety and inexperience. In speeches and interviews, she rarely goes off-message.
On a recent trip to northern Thailand, Yingluck, draped in garlands and red roses her campaign staff had earlier handed out to supporters in the front row, froze to pose for pictures. Yet she still appeared natural, at ease among the rural voters who surged forward to hug her and shake her hand — something Abhisit has had much more difficulty pulling off.
Born June 21, 1967, Yingluck obtained a master’s degree in political science from Kentucky State University in 1990. She spent most of her career working for her family’s companies, notably as director of the AIS mobile phone provider. In May, she quit her job as director of a family real estate business to run for office.
Asked how she could govern a nation of 66 million people with no political experience, Yingluck said she had grown up learning from a family of politicians and trumpeted her business career.
“In terms of the principles of politics, I think I understand well,” Yingluck said. Thailand “needs someone who has leadership, who has the management skills to help the country.”