With her telegenic good looks and powerful political support, Yingluck Shinawatra is shaking up Thailand’s first parliamentary election since a wave of political violence last year.
The 43-year-old businesswoman, sister of fugitive ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has vaulted swiftly into front runner status in the July 3 vote, tapping support in the rural north and northeast heartland where her brother remains a populist hero five years after he was toppled in a coup.
After a week of campaigning, she has surprised skeptics and demonstrated she has Thaksin’s star power as she seeks to become Thailand’s first female elected leader.
A political neophyte, she is seen widely as a stand-in for her brother, a 61-year-old ethnic Chinese telecommunications tycoon who transformed Thai politics with landslide election wins before he was felled by corruption charges he says were politically motivated.
Yingluck has promised to revive Thaksin’s populist policies and raise living standards, vowing to pursue reconciliation to end Thailand’s bloody five-year political crisis without seeking vengeance for her brother’s overthrow.
Asked for details, she said: “The first priority is to help people with rising costs of living. Next, we will have to see how to bring about reconciliation ... how we could bring unity to the country.”
“We have to move past this conflict before we can stand with stability,” she said, her sentence interrupted by a screaming supporter.
“The prime minister is so beautiful,” the supporter said of Yingluck.
It is still early days, but poll numbers are moving in her favor. A survey by Suan Dusit University on Sunday showed 41 percent of those polled backed Yingluck’s Puea Thai party, with the ruling Democrats of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva at nearly 37 percent.
A poll in Bangkok on Tuesday showed 25.8 percent of the capital backed Puea Thai, with only 14.7 percent for the Democrats in their traditional stronghold. Half of those polled were undecided.
“This has worked out better than expected [for Puea Thai]. We were expecting a proxy for Thaksin, but the fact that she is bringing something of her own is a major bonus,” said Michael Montesano of Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “This is a shrewd move. She has Thaksin’s name, she represents him, she appeals to women and it’s generated excitement. If they play this right, it could draw in voters from the middle ground.”
Thaksin has referred to her as his “clone,” but while some lament her only qualification to lead the country is her name, she is invigorating supporters.
At her first appearance in the Thaksin stronghold of the northeast since her nomination on May 16, she was feted by a crowd of thousands, enjoying a rock star reception.
Her supporters idolize Thaksin as the first leader to pay attention to the millions living beyond Bangkok’s bright lights. They are putting their hopes on her to bring him back.
As cameras flashed, cheering crowds raised index fingers symbolizing the No. 1, her party’s ballot number, as Yingluck rode in a “tuk-tuk” taxi in Udon Thani on Wednesday, smiling as supporters greeted her with red roses.
“Here’s our first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, pick No. 1, choose Yingluck,” a canvasser shouted on a loudspeaker as she met traders at a market, her voiced drowned out by crowds chanting “No. 1.”