Shinawatra is not a name for sincerity and solidarity in Thailand. As a deeply polarising personality, Thailand’s 73-year-old former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was hated by the armed forces. He was overthrown in a 2006 military coup engineered by his general Prayuth Chan-ocha. Mr Thaksin’s equally corrupt sister Yingluck Shinawatra too was dislodged from her prime ministerial perch in a 2014 coup.
Both Shinawatras live in exile today in Dubai. So divisive are the Shinawatras that Thailand was seriously polarised during their reigns. The division between the rural-north pro-Thaksin ‘red-shirt’ protesters and the royalist-urban elite anti-Thaksin ‘yellow-shirt’ agitators had become deeper. Most alarmingly, as a great generational divide set in, younger Thais were pitted against their older conservative counterparts. https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s- Picks/Interview/Thaksin-Shinawatra-on-the-record-about- politics-and-life-in-exile
Who is Helping the Dynast
Young Thais grew up to demand reforms in Thailand’s armed forces and a relook on its constitutional monarchy. Despite being the member of a divisive family, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the 36-year-old youngest daughter of Mr Thaksin, and her Pheu Thai political party are set to sweep to victory in the general elections on May 14th. Ms Paetongtarn, already leading in opinion polls, has popular support.
Ms Paetongtarn is her party’s prime ministerial candidate. Strangely, Thais seem to love dynasts. Opinion polls put Ms Paetongtarn ahead of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the 69-year-old former army general-prime minister who authored the military coup that sent Mr Thaksin into exile. Pre-poll surveys indicate Ms Paetongtarn is poised to win. The Shinawatra family name and Mr Thaksin’s famed legacy seem to be helping the dynast. https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/thai-pm-prayuth- lags-rivals-opinion-polls-ahead-may-election-2023-04-15/
Thailand’s Permanent Spoiler
Ms Paetongtarn’s father Mr Thaksin is a tycoon with a reported net worth of $2.1bn. He is known for his populism and Thais love him. His daughter Ms Paetongtarn is now riding on the back of his popularity. She has set her eyes firmly on becoming Thailand’s next prime minister. However, on the way, she will run into hurdles. The army, with its supersized political ambitions, will frustrate her efforts to form a government.
In Thailand, the army is a permanent spoiler. Hardly surprising that Thailand has alternated between democracy and military dictatorship since 1932, with 12 military coups. One such coup replaced absolute monarchy and brought in constitutional monarchy. The hyperactive and overambitious Thai army will not allow her to form a durable government. Even if Ms Paetongtarn manages, she will not find the going smooth. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2020/659330/EPRS_ATA(2020)659330_EN.pdf
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The Confirmed Economic Populist
A weak Thai economy will hobble her. The economy has been sapped by Mr Prayuth’s inefficiency and incompetence, manipulation and misconduct. Ms Paetongtarn will have to grapple with a non-performing economy, which is beset by declining foreign direct investments (FDI). Woefully, on the FDI parameter, Thailand is behind Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, who are all growing faster.
Ms Paetongtarn, however, is unflustered. She is banking on Thai voters, who are rooting for her and pining for the good old Thaksin days of 2001-2006. Mr Thaksin was known for his economic populism. His reign is regarded as a high-growth era in Thai’s economic history. Moreover, during his tenure, Thailand saw the initiation of many significant policies in public health, education, energy, social order and global relations. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41111-017-0073-z
Thai Students are Angry and Upset
Thais hope those days will be back if Ms Paetongtarn is put in the saddle. She is promising to lift the spirits of Thailand’s young, who have been feeling cheated of late. Their anger was evident in the massive student protests that hit Thailand in 2020 and 2021. Thai students have been demanding reforms in Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and decriminalisation of negative comments on the King of Thailand.
Thai student protests had some impact. Not fully satisfied, Thai students continue to demand a relook on Thai monarchy and its armed forces. They see Ms Paetongtarn as a beacon of hope, though they do not have any love for Mr Thaksin, her father. Sure, they are impressed by Ms Paetongtarn’s indomitable spirit and her go-getting demeanour. She was raring to go and get into electioneering mode, mere two days after giving birth to her baby boy. https://time.com/6271855/thailand-paetongtarn- shinawatra-election-interview/
The Equation with Move Forward
The students consider Ms Paetongtarn as Thai democracy’s best hope. They want her to prevent Thailand from descending into a hellhole of democratic decay. They are sure she can galvanise her countrymen and make the army and the monarchy loosen their controls over Thailand and its people. In fact, Thai students are ardent backers of Ms Paetongtarn now. They want her help to put Thailand on the Asian growth map.
Most students work for Move Forward, a progressive political party founded in 2018. The party is keen on military and constitutional reforms, besides demanding decriminalisation of royal criticism. With the backing of Move Forward, Ms Paetongtarn is proposing to launch her economic reforms across monopolies, crony capitalism and small businesses. Pheu Thai and Move Forward are poised to win the top two spots. https://www.nationthailand.com/thailand/politics/40025420
The Threat from Military Loyalists
Post-win, they are expected to form an alliance. Yet, they may not be able to form a government. There are reasons for this. The 2016 constitution, created after the 2014 coup, is biased. It allows the 250 members of the military senate, all military loyalists, to have a say in picking the prime minister. These loyalists fill the benches in the Thai senate. They are sure to steer clear of Ms Paetongtarn, the daughter of their bete noire. https://www.kuwaittimes.com/thaksins-daughter-takes- shinawatra-brand-to-new-thailand-generation/
Chances are that the military loyalists will not hesitate to install a yes-person as Thailand’s prime minister. This implies the need for an opposition candidate like Ms Paetongtarn to win three times more seats than any other grouping in the lower house. Plus, all judicial courts and electoral commissions are filled with military appointees. This is why Ms Paetongtarn will struggle for prime ministership even after a poll win.
Will not Loosen Army’s Hold
Ms Paetongtarn is leaving nothing to chance. As insurance against unpredictable upsets, she is trying to strike a power-sharing deal with Thai armed forces. However, being a political greenhorn may mar her prime ministerial prospects. Until recently, she was the deputy chief executive of a hotel management company owned by the Shinawatras. Thai watchers say this dimension of her personality will be a serious handicap. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/06/who-is- paetongtarn-shinawatra-the-political-scion-aiming-to-become- thailand-pm
Worse, Ms Paetongtarn does not seem to be keen on striking power-sharing deals with military-backed political parties. However, the return of a dynast like Ms Paetongtarn will not loosen the hold the army and monarchy have on their nation of 71m. If Ms Paetongtarn is anointed as Thailand’s prime minister, the dynasty will be back, with the army and the monarchy intact. This means Thailand is destined to continue forever as a constitutional monarchy, whoever comes to power.
As Thailand’s prime minister, Ms Paetongtarn is likely to move her country away from Chinese influence, a legacy of General Prayuth. Populism and political polarisation will return after 17 long years. Ms Paetongtarn’s return will trigger a relapse towards political instability and coup-driven politics. Her in-exile father and aunt will return for sure. Trouble seems to lie ahead for Thailand and its democracy.