Ousted Thai Leader's Sister Becomes Prime Minister

Jul 4, 2011

Elections in Thailand produced the country's first female prime minister on Sunday. Yingluck Shinawatra, 44, is a businesswoman with no political experience other than her carefully stage-managed election campaign.

Yingluck's real test will be to make peace with a political establishment and military that deposed her brother former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup five years ago.

With careful coaching, Yingluck has avoided making any gaffes. She's come across as a plain-spoken populist, not a policy wonk or an establishment insider. She got a master's degree from Kentucky State University and has since been president of the country's largest mobile phone operator.

She told reporters that she would first work to deliver on her Puea Thai Party's campaign pledges.

"The first thing that I want to do, is of course, I want to do whatever Puea Thai promise on the campaigns." Yingluck says. "The first thing, of course, we have to help people on economics problems, that's our first priority."

Her policies are similar to those of her brother Thaksin who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006. Yingluck has promised tablet computers for school children, subsidized rice prices for farmers and high-speed rail for travelers.

Dr. Benjarong Suwankiri, a senior economist at Thailand's TMB Bank, says Yingluck and her party have a limited window of opportunity before they have to cut back on their spending.

"The economic policies offered by the Puea Thai Party focuses a lot on short-run stimulus, something that Thailand doesn't really need right now because the economy has already moved out of the recession," Benjaron says. "Right now, the economy is stabilizing with inflation edging up."

Despite allegations of corruption, Yingluck's brother Thaksin remains the most election-winning prime minister in recent Thai history.

Professor Andrew Walker, a Thailand expert at the Australian National University in Canberra, says the Thai military is less likely to stage a coup this time. Not just because the electorate has spoken clearly, but because the last coup only helped to strengthen Thaksin and his supporters.

"The military will realize that to attempt to subvert this electoral result yet again would be, in a sense trying stop the course of recent Thai political history," Walker says. "That course has certainly been very much in favor of Thaksin and his political allies."

Walker says Yingluck will have to be especially careful about granting amnesty to her brother, as this could prompt a dangerous backlash from the military and political establishment.

Motorcycle taxi driver Virachai Poodphroa is waiting for a fare not far from where Red Shirt protesters torched glitzy department stores last year in violence that left more than 90 dead. He says he worries that Thailand's bureaucrats and generals will not accept having a female prime minister.

"If it was up to me, I'd just accept the opinion of the majority," Virachai says. "We'll just have to see if those in power are men enough to do that."

Thailand has weathered 18 coups since the end of its absolute monarchy in 1932. This is one of the clearest electoral outcomes ever, and Thailand's stability rests on whether all sides can just let it stand.

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