A nation in the balance

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 07 Aug 2011

ON Friday, the Thai parliament voted in the country’s first woman prime minister. At 44, Yingluck Shinawatra is also the world’s youngest female premier.

Beyond the record books, however, the real issues and the tough questions have started to bite. They will move from the background to the foreground once she officially becomes prime minister with the customary announcement from the palace.

Yingluck comes into office as a bundle of perceived contradictions. This has effectively kept her political opponents off-balance as she appeals directly to the public.

What many see as an attractive woman is occupationally inseparable from her elder brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ugly episodes of the convicted fugitive’s controversial rule. He has described her as his “clone”. She has pledged, as an election promise, to not be manipulated by him.

She has no political experience, having previously worked in the Shinawatra family business. But her two degrees are in public administration, not business administration. From a quiet and inconspicuous background, she has been thrust into the forefront of Thailand’s often cut-throat politics.

She is the first girl player in a tough boys’ game. She has tried to capture some of Thaksin’s populism by promising to enable popular evaluation of her government’s performance. Yet she is unable to separate herself entirely from her elite family background.

Apart from her own Shin Corp roots, her husband is also identified with his background in the Charoen Pokphand Group headed by outgoing premier Abhisit Vejjajiva’s father. The hurdles before Yingluck Shinawatra, incoming prime minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, are clear enough. What matters now is how she will tackle them.

The first test of her political mettle is the composition of her new Cabinet. That will become clear in the following days. Observers will be watching for any holdovers from previous Thaksin-friendly administrations. She has indicated there will be no unacceptable or controversial appointments, widely taken to mean no posts for Thaksin cronies or Red Shirt leaders.

The second test is her government’s handling of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand, headed by respected law professor and former attorney-general Kanit na Nakhon. Although Kanit had been associated with Thaksin’s administration, he was appointed to the post by Abhisit because he was seen as capable and professionally neutral. He is reportedly uncertain whether Thaksin will interfere in the commission, given its pivotal role in determining his political future.

The third test for Yingluck’s new government is the question of Thaksin’s possible amnesty. That would enable him to return to Thailand without having to serve his two-year jail sentence, and may even include a political comeback in time.

So far, Yingluck has deflected all questions about amnesty, trying to camouflage that prospect with a general “amnesty” for all that would include some of Thaksin’s foes. However, that tactic has failed to quell public disquiet about the former premier escaping his punishment for corruption and abuse of power.

Through all these criteria for the new government, there will also be the constant test of how Yingluck will handle likely interference by her brother. It was Thaksin who had decided on her political candidacy, and as a micro-manager he may expect a debt of gratitude from her.

During the election campaign, he had boasted that he would be back in Thailand by December for his daughter’s wedding. Thus Yingluck’s toughest contradiction: her biggest political challenge could be the one politically closest to her.

Ultimately, whether she will end up merely as a remote-controlled prime minister is for her to decide. She will serve her country better with more independence from Thaksin, as was shown by the former Thaksin crony-turned-prime-minister, the late Samak Sundaravej.

At the same time, Yingluck’s premiership may also be a test of Thailand’s key political players. For the king’s advisers, it will be a test of whether their annoyance with Thaksin’s style has to run in his family.

So far, the palace has been giving Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party the time and space to prove or to discredit itself.

For the army, Yingluck’s administration will be a test of its commitment to democracy. There is a mutual wariness coupled with hopes of mutual accommodation.

For the street rabble polarised between pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and pro-Palace Yellow Shirts, the new government will be a test of their sense of realism and the national interest.

If Yingluck can heal that deep wound between them, the achievement alone will elevate her to higher things. The political ceremonies over, the new government’s honeymoon is about to begin. But like all honeymoons, it will be over soon enough as the harsh realities set in.

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