The departure of the former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who fled the country prior to a Supreme Court verdict on her rice-pledging policy, leaves various questions concerning the future of herself and the Shinawatra family, the Pheu Thai Party, and changes in the Thai political landscape.
It is premature to see her exit as the end of the Shinawatra era in Thai politics, since events after the two military coups of 2006 and 2014 demonstrate that the clan’s influence cannot be abolished simply by military force. Instead, the coups did the reverse, keeping the Shinawatras politically alive and empowered.
The 2006 coup, led by the Council for Democratic Reform, ousted then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai government – but it did not diminish his influence.
In 2014 the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup amid escalating violence surrounding protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2013-2014, and removed prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai Party leader, from office.
Her 2011 electoral success had obviously capitalised on the popularity of her brother, Thaksin. Yet her candidacy was perceived by some as a battle to represent Shinawatra family interests, rather than the interests of Pheu Thai voters. During electoral campaigning, she repeated the point she was Thaksin’s sister and reiterated his achievements as a means to gain support.
After she was ousted by the military in 2014, Yingluck began to establish her own, separate power base during multiple trips across the country, particularly in the North and Northeast, her party’s stronghold. She was successful in boosting her popularity and keeping Pheu Thai relevant to its constituents, and also portraying herself as a victim of an illegitimate military intervention and faulty justice system.
Yet for the Shinawatras’ political opponents, who advocated the coups, the clan is not a victim of military intervention but rather the root of the political divisiveness and problems that made it necessary.
That leaves an elephant in the room. A large swathe of the Thai middle-class and anti-Thaksin groups have rejected democracy and now embrace military rule. This works in the interests of the Shinawatra family, and allows them to embed and empower themselves in the Thai political environment.
The Thai Rak Thai Party and its incarnations have not lost an election since coming to power with a landslide victory of over 11 million votes in 2001. In the most recent election in 2011, its successor Pheu Thai won 15.7 million votes, under the guidance of Thaksin from outside Thailand.
The 2006 and 2014 coups were intended to curtail the power and influence of the clan, but they badly backfired. Meanwhile the military’s continuing role in Thai politics is unlikely to weaken the Shinawatras’ grip in the long term because the military cannot establish trust through coercion.
Another Shinawatra victory at the polls could well be followed by another military intervention, further empowering the clan.
If they want to break this cycle, the Thai middle-class and elite cannot continue to blindly dismiss the very core democratic principle of one-man-one-vote, while embracing military rule on the pretext that rural voters are victims of populist policies and vote-buying.
While vote-buying was indeed a significant problem in Thailand from the 1970s into the 2000s, today it has little significant impact because most voters are fully aware of party manifestos and their implications on public policies. Moreover, middle-class assumptions that rural voters are naive are not only outdated and erroneous, but emphasise the inherent socio-political inequalities which gave rise to Thaksin in the first place.
Therefore, the 2010 red-shirt protest was not primarily an endorsement of the Shinawatra family, but rather an outcry by the long-ignored rural poor, who wanted to protect their voting rights under the Thai constitution and the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a signatory.
On the one hand, democracy offered Thaksin the opportunity to establish his Shinawatra political dynasty. But on the other, the same democracy offers voters a mechanism to remove the Shinawatra family through an election.
Political popularity can last a long time, but not forever. When a party in power can no longer satisfy voters’ needs, voting decisions change. This is how representative democracy functions.
Pheu Thai’s victory was no miracle, but rather a result of research by the party that enabled it to respond to the demands of voters, who were regarded as stockholders in the arena of public policy. This is a fundamental notion of representative democracy, in which parliamentary members represent the interests of the constituents who provided them with a mandate.
Whether the Shinawatras will now maintain their involvement with Pheu Thai is unclear, but the departure of Yingluck is unlikely to signal the end of the clan’s influence on Thai politics.
Meanwhile the military has indicated it intends to control the country for the next decade or two, pending permission from the political elite and middle class and their continuing willingness to limit democracy to prevent the return of the Shinawatra clan.
Nevertheless, we might still see a day when the Shinawatra family vanishes from the Thai political landscape altogether. But only when a genuine democracy is given the opportunity to function without military intervention.
Titipol Phakdeewanich is dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick in England.