Thaksin’s puppet sister takes power in Thailand
Red Shirts get their way - now will their hero Thaksin Shinawatra return from exile?
Supporters of Thailand's renegade prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra are loudly celebrating a decisive election victory that puts his photogenic but politically inexperienced sister Yingluck Shinawatra (above) at the head of the new government and boosts their hopes for a return home of their self-exiled hero.
Yingluck, a 44-year-old businesswoman thrust into politics by her brother and accused by many of being a mere marionette, swept to victory at the head of the Pheu Thai party - the effective front of the volatile Red Shirt movement. She will be Thailand's first ever female prime minister.
Pheu Thai's election campaign was largely directed by Thaksin from his home in exile in Dubai, where he seeks to evade a Thai court's sentence of two years' imprisonment for corruption.
Yingluck ousts the British-born and educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, whose elitist background and immaculate credentials, including a fluent command of English, alienated him from millions of Thailand's rural lower classes, who increasingly embraced the anti-establishment stand of the populist Red Shirt movement.
With more than 90 per cent of the votes in Sunday's election counted by this morning, Vejjajiva's Democrat Party, which took power at the head of a shaky coalition with minor parties in December 2008, had won only 160 of the 500 parliamentary seats. Pheu Thai have a convincing parliamentary majority after winning 262 seats, while small parties, including Abhisit's coalition partners, took the rest.
Most of the Pheu Thai victories were scored in Thailand's northern and northeastern provinces, the poorer regions where the Red Shirts maintain impregnable strongholds —and where pictures of Thaksin are now replacing the customary portraits of the country's revered monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement stand accused of not only being anti-establishment but also of harboring republican sentiments, and of representing a real threat to Thailand's monarchy.
While campaigning on a platform of reconciliation and respect for the monarchy, Pheu Thai effectively rode to victory on assurances that it would address the grievances of the rural supporters of the Red Shirt movement.
The party also made promises that political commentators say will be very difficult to keep. They include a big rise in the minimum wage and such sweeteners for peasant farmers as credit cards and better access to loans.
None of the challenges facing Pheu Thai, however, are more critical for Thailand's future than its handling of the controversy surrounding Yingluck Shinawatra's fugitive brother.
Pheu Thai has indicated it may push for an amnesty for offenders convicted of political crimes, which would free several Red Shirt leaders and supporters still detained for their part in the violent anti-government protests that erupted in Bangkok in April and May 2010. Such an amnesty would not normally apply to Thaksin, but many of his influential supporters claim his conviction on corruption charges was politically motivated.
Should Thaksin and his supporters find a way for him to return to Thailand, the country would again face an existential crisis. The top military brass who overthrew him in 2006 would hardly welcome him home with open arms — the leader of the 2006 coup, former army general Sonthi Boonyaratglin, said today he was disappointed by the election result.
Reports that Thaksin has been holding secret meetings with representatives of the Thai Army add to the political uncertainty, indicating that a split could be developing within the military.
Assurances by Thailand's army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, that a coup is out of the question aren't given much credence. Thailand has experienced 18 coups and coup attempts since democratic government was introduced in 1932, and many of these were preceded by similar assurances.