Thanks to powerful supporters, the PM has made it despite the brickbats
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has survived more than 15 months in office despite repeated attacks from critics and opposition politicians on her alleged ignorance, lack of political experience, and tendency to stay adrift of key issues.
For many observers she has a good chance of completing her four-year term, thanks to support from many experienced and influential politicians behind her.
A political novice, Yingluck contested her first election and won a seat in parliament in the July 3, 2011 ballot. Only 49 days earlier, she became the Pheu Thai Party’s prime-ministerial candidate although she was not – and has never been – the party leader.
In her brother’s shoes
Her most outstanding quality was being the youngest sister of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is considered the patriarch of Pheu Thai – his third political party after two previous ones were dissolved on court orders for electoral fraud.
Thaksin has been in self-exile overseas to avoid imprisonment at home over a corruption case.
Many politicians from the ruling-coalition parties, as well as senior bureaucrats, reportedly visited Thaksin for his backing before Cabinet reshuffles and changes in top bureaucratic positions.
Unlike her predecessors, including her ex-PM brother, who often had to tackle key political issues by themselves, Yingluck seems to have tried to distance herself from contentious issues since assuming office in August 2011. Indeed, critics say the prime minister has sought to be invisible politically.
She seldom attended House of Representatives meetings in which opposition MPs queried the prime minister or Cabinet members. Yingluck often assigned relevant ministers to respond to the queries on her behalf. Her argument was that they had been assigned to particular responsibilities.
Even at the censure debate against her and three other Cabinet members in late November, the PM was absent for most of the session and often responded to opposition MPs’ allegations from prepared notes.
She has also kept a distance from hot issues like constitutional amendment and the so-called reconciliation bill, which have been described by the opposition Democrat Party as attempts to help Thaksin out of his legal problems. She always insists those are matters for Parliament although her government and coalition parties support them.
Given her scant political savvy, Yingluck needs much support and assistance – mostly behind the scenes – from experienced politicians and advisers in order to survive. These include her trusted aides Suranand Vejjajiva and Kittiratt Na-Ranong, as well as her businessman friend Srettha Thavisin.
Suranand, the PM’s secretary-general, has won Yingluck’s trust and helps her on many key issues. He is known to prepare her statements and often updates her on current affairs.
Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt, who is finance minister, has known Yingluck since they both were in the private sector. Yingluck was managing director of SC Asset, the Shinawatra family’s property firm. Kittiratt was managing director of the Stock Exchange of Thailand and later – at her invitation – became president of Shinawatra University, which was founded by Thaksin. Kittiratt was a director of the Shinawatras’ Thaicom Foundation, in which Yingluck served as secretary.
He has also served as a bridge between the Pheu Thai-led government and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda.
‘Brains’ behind the operation
Yingluck also has a bigger group of people acting as her “brains” who work directly for her big brother. They include Pansak Vinyaratn, Prommin Lertsuridej, Phumtham Wechayachai, Pongsak Raktapongpisarn, and lawyer Noppadon Pattama.
Pansak is chief adviser to the Yingluck government. Prommin is a key man in Thaksin’s think-tank, providing the prime minister with advice on economic policies. Phumtham serves as a key adviser to Yingluck and also acts as the link among the PM, her government, the ruling party, and people’s groups, including the red shirts.
Yingluck’s elder sister Yaowapa Wongsawat, who leads the ruling party’s largest faction, also provides support, although she is believed to exert influence over the PM.
Unlike her immediate predecessor, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, Yingluck has not faced open shows of hatred by her political opponents. While serving as prime minister, Abhisit was harassed often by small groups of red-shirt protesters in public.
Abhisit’s government was severely interrupted by the red shirts’ street protests in 2009 and the unrest and riots in 2010, which paralysed Bangkok for more than two months and led to more than 90 deaths under a government crackdown to end the stand-off.
On the contrary, the largest anti-government rally Yingluck has faced so far was a protest in November by the Pitak Siam group, which lasted less than one day. The protest was easily subdued, thanks to an efficient and swift crowd-control operation by the police – something the Democrat-led government was unable to achieve while it was in power (the force at that time was accused of being led by ‘red’ pro-Thaksin officers).
Yingluck has often been derided by her opponents as just the puppet of her brother, who is said to pull the strings behind the ruling party and coalition government. She denies the charge and appears to have tried to prove she is in control, although many people remain unconvinced.
She will need to try harder and be more hands-on in government affairs to silence the critics and reassure the dubious public.