You can call it Yingluck Shinawatra’s “greatest trick”, although the “cover girl” phenomenon that she created means she’s a far cry from being non-existent. The thing is, how can you be all over the front pages day in and day out and yet manage to be politically invisible at the same time? Thailand’s first female prime minister has done just that, whether you loathe or admire her. To be there but not exactly there is the theme of her first year in office.
The past 12 months have mixed nightmares and fairytales. Opponents may say fairytales for her but nightmares for anybody else, while supporters see an innocent heroine surviving against all odds. In politically polarised Thailand, she is one thing to one side and another thing to the other. This is not going to change in her second year, although what will very likely be different this time around is that her faint political essence may come into sharp focus.
The most biting remark welcoming Yingluck into her second year came from Democrat Korn Chatikavanij. “I give her 10 out of 10 for meeting all my expectations,” he quipped, clarifying that he had had a clear idea of whose interests she would be representing and how she would do it. A former Pheu Thai adviser, without the sarcasm of Korn, agreed with him. “She has been like a hollow woman, and that helps [Pheu Thai’s agenda],” the source said. “When the person who is supposed to be the biggest target is overlooked or cannot be seen, difficult things can be easy.”
That might explain how the Pheu Thai government could contain Thaksin Shinawatra’s re-entry visa controversies involving Japan, Germany, the UK and the United States. And despite big domestic uproars over the charter revamp and the “reconciliation” bills, Yingluck has been generally unscathed, with fierce political attacks deflected onto the likes of Chalerm Yoobamrung, Nitirat group leader Vorajet Pakirat or even former coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin.
Economists interviewed by The Nation said that apart from the relatively calmer political atmosphere, in which there have been no weeks- or months-long street blockades, the Pheu Thai government has been too preoccupied with politics to make a significant economic contribution. All the vital signs of the country’s economy have been acceptable or fine, but it’s despite of politics rather than because of it. Economic policies, critics say, are contentious at best and dangerously populist at worst.
The GDP grew 0.3 per cent year on year in the first quarter. A full year forecast of GDP growth has varied from the plus side of 4 to the plus side of 5. Inflation has not been alarming but always hovering near worrisome. Unemployment in the first quarter was 0.7 per cent, the same as the month of June.
Average household debt was Bt134,900 last year, compared with Bt82,485 in 2002, when Yingluck’s brother Thaksin was in power.
The critics see no coherent big-picture economic policy, in other words a true vision for Thailand. The drastic minimum wage increase is considered a populist drive that has yet to help push up spending power but has weakened small or medium-scale businesses. The rice-pledging scheme is deemed to have spoiled Thai farmers, dethroned the country’s status as the king of world rice
exporters and spawned corruption. Some businesses have benefited from first-house or first-car tax policies and yet these government programmes are criticised for misleading both spenders and manufacturers, and for not helping the overall economy.
In Thailand, though, economic opinions or feelings can always be divided along political lines. The best example was when the “rich” and the “poor” – or their political representatives to be exact – faced off over the “rising” cost of living. In one of her most controversial remarks, Yingluck suggested that it was natural for people to feel that life was getting harder after a major disaster. Pheu Thai’s political apparatus, which normally takes pride in echoing the voice of the poor, was mobilised to depict a middle-class economic cry-baby. Even Thaksin Shinawatra’s son, Phantongtae, became an active cheap-food finder on Facebook, lashing out at opposition MPs holding his aunt responsible for expensive goods prices.
Not the best speaker, Yingluck’s public speeches on important matters were rare in her first year. When she had to say it, the awkwardness translated into many verbal slips. Somehow, her not-so-fine oratory skills contributed to a strange leadership that worked for a beginner like her. Issues could not be spun or amplified against her because she gave enemies and people around her so little to amplify. She is an “anti-matter” of politics, which is not an easy thing to be given the fact that she is Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister.
She has been comfortable internationally, or at least her sincere, unwavering smiles make it appear so. Even the staunchest critics could not fault her appearance or “brand ambassador” look on the international stage. Although she fumbled a few times verbally, the perceived innocence helped sweeten any error. The global audience must have been impressed, and just like Abhisit Vejjajiva before her, “domestic politics” can be a good, if not convenient, excuse when something goes diplomatically wrong.
But whether she is elusive or non-confrontational, and whether she possesses an odd yet workable leadership or she lacks leadership entirely, Yingluck will find her second year more demanding and scrutinising. The fiery debates in Parliament on her first year may be just a warm-up. A censure attack is certain to happen. The charter showdown will come to a head. Her brother’s homesickness is likely to get worse, although in one of his last interviews he indicated willingness to extend his exile if that would help her. The red shirts are still all behind her, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change overnight if she or her brother strikes a deal with the “elite”.
Can Yingluck pull an even greater trick in her second year? Already, she has defied difficult odds, doing what Korn totally expected her to do. As they say, every good magic consists of three parts. The “pledge” and the “turn” – the acts of making something ordinary disappear – have been carried out. To Yingluck, the “prestige” – the final act of making what has vanished re-appear – is what remains to be done, and in the Thai political context, it carries multiple meanings.
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