Can first-year Yingluck survive her second?

opinion August 01, 2012 00:00

By Tulsathit Taptim

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Yingluck Shinawatra is stepping into her second year in office the way she entered her first - beautifully, humbly and, of course, vulnerably.

All that – most ironically the apparent fragility – has proved to be her biggest strength. The late premier Samak Sundaravej was much tougher, and Somchai Wongsawat far more seasoned, but both men folded in a heartbeat, and their administrations didn’t even do half of what her government has been doing when Thaksin Shinawatra is concerned. Is there something very deceptive about Yingluck’s political capability (or lack thereof) or does she have weakened enemies and better preparation by her camp to thank for her making it through the first year mostly unscathed?

Of course, the Pheu Thai Party is better equipped and more flexible than its previous incarnation as the People Power Party under Samak and Somchai. The ruling camp is also still riding the crest of a formidable red-shirt upheaval and landslide election victory. The yellow shirts are having trouble mustering a 1,000-strong, one-day protest, let alone a months-long occupation of Government House. And if going for the jugular is the ultimate plan, this Pheu Thai administration seems to be boxing, not brawling, its way toward its goal.  
But what allows the pro-Thaksin government to have this much time to play with is Yingluck. Whatever it is – her innocence, her naivety, or, as hardcore opponents would put it, her folly – it works. So far, that is. Enemies never seem able to handle her childlike elusiveness, as alleged government schemes to help her brother pile up on the House floor or in the Cabinet meeting room. Smooth as silk, she deflects the responsibility to answer questions to Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, or simply Parliament. Even former coup-maker Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who put Thaksin out of power, came under tougher scrutiny than her for trying to help him.
Thai politics has learned to cope with conventional cunning and any mixture of eloquence and hypocrisy. She is something new. It’s easier to deal with a prime minister who trades blows with rivals on a daily basis. When the object of attacks is a wide-eyed punching bag, the ones who do the punching become clueless. And it doesn’t matter that her English is poorer than Abhisit Vejjajiva’s. Well, frankly, it matters, as while the latter has to fight tooth and nail for Article 112 on the international stage, Yingluck can rely on a few basic sentences when foreign interviewers question her about Thaksin and the actions of her government.  
One side is “embarrassed” to have her as the country’s leader. But the greater the embarrassment, and the greater the ridicule, the greater the affection on the other side. The Yingluck fever that helped Pheu Thai win last year’s election has evolved into remarkable protectiveness. Her unorthodox clout has all but overshadowed the return of banned politicians, and it will certainly reach new heights if rumours that she might double as defence minister turn out to be true.
According to some foreign media analyses, even reaching her one-year mark as prime minister defies the life span of a political fairy tale, especially considering that there was never really a honeymoon. Princess Charming was plucked from ordinary life and thrown into fiery politics overnight. What looked like a desperate measure proved to be an unexpected antidote. Her next challenge, however, will be to apply the first-year Yingluck to the second year. Things will change, but she is unlikely to. Or at least she’s unlikely to change fast enough if the tide turns.
When flooding on an unprecedented scale threatened to overwhelm Thailand, Yongyuth Wichaidit, Pracha Promnok and Plodprasop Suraswadi were there to take the flak. When big countries reopened their doors for Thaksin, Surapong drew the fire. Chalerm, Sonthi and the Nitirat Group dominated headlines on legal and constitutional schemes allegedly designed to absolve Yingluck’s big brother. When Parliament occasionally erupted, the spotlight was generally on Jatuporn Promphan and his opposite numbers.
All the while, Yingluck charmed her way on the international stage, presented computer tablets to underprivileged Thai kids and launched other contentious government projects. She must be relieved to know that the biggest political rallies reported on the front pages over the past year were held by her supporters. Somehow, this is what political leaders in the modern era are supposed to do. They take care of “perception” while others do the rest.
But even in modern-day politics, perception can only last for so long. Reality – or “the other perception” if you will – is patient but it’s also eventual. Yingluck Shinawatra’s first year was about anything but “leadership”. The second one can be about nothing but.