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What Happens When Thaksin Returns to Thailand?

August 10, 2011

Last week, Thailand made history when its parliament elected its first-ever woman Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, one month after her Pheu Thai party swept the July 3 elections. However, Prime Minister Yingluck’s ability to rise to the top of Thailand’s political echelon is not because of her political acumen. In fact, before last week she had never held political office. But she possesses an extraordinary familial political pedigree as the younger sister of the controversial former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006.

A supporter of Yingluck Shinwatra

Despite being a political novice, Prime Minister Yingluck led her Pheu Thai party to victory July 3. Photo by Chandler Vandergrift.

Despite being a political novice, Prime Minister Yingluck led her Pheu Thai party to victory, winning 265 of 500 seats in the House of Representatives. After its victory, Pheu Thai formed a coalition with five other parties totaling 300 seats, demonstrating a willingness to share power with smaller parties. The only other time in Thai political history that a party won an outright majority was when her brother was prime minister.

While Prime Minister Yingluck and the Pheu Thai won a decisive victory, no one should hold any illusions that the election will end five years of political instability in Thailand. Since the July 3 elections, calm seems to have settled, as every political party has called for national reconciliation. However, deep political cleavages are not far from the surface between the government and Thailand’s established elite.

The new prime minister’s older brother remains a polarizing figure – loved by the majority of the rural masses and urban wage earners and loathed by the middle class, the military, and others in the nation’s traditional political hierarchy. Thaksin, who was convicted in absentia in 2008 of corruption and abuse of power, has made it clear that he wants to return to Thailand at some point. He spends most of his time in exile in Dubai. The prospect that Thaksin could return to Thailand as a free man is anathema to the country’s political establishment. It will be interesting to see how patient Thaksin will be in returning to Thailand and how all of this will be negotiated with the elite, particularly the military who deposed him five years ago.

Given the election results, the question is not if Thaksin will return to Thailand, but if his return could spark a significant reaction by those who so vehemently disapprove of him that they take to the streets in protest? A resumption of protests, particularly by the “yellow shirts” – those who support the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) – could make it difficult for the Pheu Thai government to govern effectively. In response, the pro-Thaksin “red shirts” who overwhelmingly supported Yingluck and the Pheu Thai party could return to the streets, thereby reviving the cycle of partisan protest that has plagued the nation since 2006. Under such a scenario, Thailand’s political elite could be put in the unenviable position to choose between supporting the current elected government or the protesters.

In the campaign leading up to the election, the Pheu Thai promised many populist policies that appealed to their core supporters. One of the most popular policies was to introduce a standard daily minimum wage of 300 Thai baht ($10), which would rise to 1,000 baht ($33) per day by 2020. Although promised a cut in the corporate tax rate, businesses are concerned about the effect that a large increase in wages would have on the nation’s inflation, productivity, and competitiveness. Yingluck’s government has backed off this pledge a bit over the last few days, saying the new minimum wage would be increased only in Bangkok and Phuket, but has left unclear when the new minimum wage might be applied to the rest of the country. As the Pheu Thai’s strongest support comes from the nation’s poorest region, the Northeast, its supporters may feel Yingluck’s government is not honoring one of its most important campaign promises.

Despite the current calm, these are very challenging times for Thailand. Time will tell how Prime Minister Yingluck will handle the numerous competing interests and pressures that even the most experienced of Thai politicians would find daunting.

John J. Brandon is the director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs in Washington, D.C. From 1978-1981, he taught English in Bangkok and Songkhla, Thailand, and visits the country regularly. Brandon can be reached at jbrandon@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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