Political novice out to prove she's her own boss

An easy win:  Yingluck’s greatest challenge may be piecing together Thailand’s fractured society, a task that eluded the four  governments since the 2006 coup. NYT

When she was a beauty queen and the leader of her high school marching band, she dreamed of becoming an ambassador. Now Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected prime minister in the Thai Parliament on Friday, has soared past her schoolgirl ambitions.

The first woman in this country of 65 million to hold the top political job, Yingluck is enjoying a rare luxury in the often macho world of Thai politics, floating above the political snake pit and dismissing prickly questions with her winning smile.

Yet Yingluck, 44, who has never held political office before, is also one of the least experienced leaders to emerge in a major Asian country in decades. A politician’s rapid rise to power is often called meteoric. But space rocks travel too slowly to describe Yingluck’s apparition in Thai politics.

Her political career spans about 80 days. In May, her political party, Pheu Thai, named her as a candidate for prime minister for the July 3 election, which her party won by a landslide. She was urged on by her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup and who, from exile overseas, looms as the kingmaker and impresario of the incoming administration.

Supporters of Pheu Thai say they admire the corporate successes of the Shinawatra family and see Yingluck as in touch with markets and the business world at large. In a country that reveres beauty, voters also appeared to have been charmed by Yingluck’s good looks. (One writer in ‘The Bangkok Post’, who was analysing Yingluck’s hairstyle, waxed poetic: “That side part perfectly grazes your ear like a young lamb gently skipping over a meadow,” the author wrote.)

Some supporters also saw the election as a chance to send a protest message to the military and traditional elite who had backed the outgoing coalition and were perceived as applying undue influence behind the scenes. Yingluck, despite her family’s fortune, was often portrayed in the campaign as an upcountry girl who was in touch with plebeian Thailand.

With the controversial legacy of Thaksin both a boon and a potential barrier, Yingluck must now deliver on her party’s litany of ambitious populist promises: a sharp increase in the minimum wage, the construction of high-speed rail lines, providing free tablet computers to primary school students and revamping the health care system, among many others.

But her greatest challenge may be piecing together Thailand’s fractured society, a task that eluded the four governments since the 2006 coup.

The victory of Yingluck and her Pheu Thai Party has sharpened divisions between rural and urban areas and started a debate over the significance of a woman leading the country.

Yingluck has repeatedly said she is well qualified because she is a woman and thus more adept at listening and compromise, a logic that irked some commentators.

“There are many types of women—some are cruel and some are examples of uselessness,” Chalidaporn Songsamphan, a lecturer of political science at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told ‘The Prachachart Turakij’, a newspaper. “Their sexuality might display gentleness and modesty, but that doesn’t mean that they are gentle people.”

Stuck to her guns

When a reporter asked Yingluck her reaction to these criticisms, she stuck to her guns.
“I will repeat again that females are the symbols of nonviolence,” she said. “Another thing I would say is that a female is more compromising. A female can talk with anyone easily.”

Because so much of her career has been spent inside the family business, most notably as the chief executive of Thailand’s largest mobile phone operator, unvarnished opinions by those who have worked with her are hard to come by.

Yingluck is savvy about technology and is a hands-on manager, said Arpattra Sringkarrinkul, who was executive vice president when Yingluck led the phone company, which had about 5,000 employees at the time.

“She is not a dictatorial kind of person,” Arpattra said Friday. “She has her own way to convince people to agree with her.”

Perhaps a more candid insight into Yingluck’s background comes from her 11th-grade high school teacher, Suphap Watanavitkun.

Yingluck was an average student who was confident yet obedient and who won a competition for the best-mannered student at her high school in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, Suphap said.

“She kept out of trouble,” Suphap said. “She studied quite well—she wasn’t as good as the top of the class, but she was quite okay.”

Much of Yingluck’s life has been in the shadow of her brother, Thaksin, who is 18 years her senior.

In the 1970s, Thaksin obtained a master’s degree in criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University. A decade and a half later, Yingluck got a masters in public administration an hour’s drive away, at Kentucky State University, a historically black institution amid horse farms and rolling hills.

(Felicia Lewis, a spokeswoman for Kentucky State, said the university was preparing a letter of congratulations for what may be its most famous alumna. “It’s a big deal here,” Lewis said.)

Yingluck’s professional career began at her brother’s business empire—first at a company that produced telephone directories, then at AIS, the cellular phone company, and finally a real estate company.

She has spent recent weeks denying stories in the Thai media that Thaksin is calling the shots from abroad, that he is helping choose the cabinet, and wheeling and dealing on her behalf.

Analysts say this perception is likely to dog her tenure as prime minister: Is she Thaksin’s proxy or her own woman?

“Particularly in Southeast Asian countries, male and female politicians often enter politics because of their family connections. They enter politics because their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins or even husband and wife are politicians,” said Chalidaporn, the political science lecturer. “Yingluck jumped into politics because of the needs of the family.”

Yingluck has pleaded for patience.

“You might not trust me,” she told a group of reporters last month. “Please give me a chance and time. I will prove myself for all of you.”

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