Next-generation Shinawatra takes steps to revive Thai political dynasty

Subel Rai Bhandari and Nontarat Phaicharoen
2022.06.29
Bangkok
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Next-generation Shinawatra takes steps to revive Thai political dynasty Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, attends a Pheu Thai Party campaign event in Bangkok, May 12, 2022.
Jack Taylor/AFP

The arrival hall of the military-civilian airport at Ubon Ratchathani was jam-packed when the delegation from Bangkok arrived, with more than 2,000 people clad in red shirts – symbolic of support for ousted populist leaders Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck.

The recent scene in northeastern Thailand appeared to be a show of strength for delegation member Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest daughter, who has been promoted in the nation’s largest opposition Pheu Thai Party to build on the family name that has influenced national politics since 2001.

“Do you miss the godfather? My dad and aunt send their regards to the Si Saket people!” Paetongtarn said in the local Isaan dialect during a later meet-and-greet in a neighboring province.

“My dad always says he was a country boy who like many others lacked opportunity. I feel that rural people have great potential, but I wonder why they are still poor. Why were elected governments thrown out in coups?”

Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck, were driven from the prime minister’s office by military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.

Paetongtarn, 35, recently topped a respected quarterly opinion poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA), a Bangkok-based university.

In telephone interviews of 2,500 adults of various occupations, income and education levels from around the country, more than one-quarter of respondents said she would be the best candidate in the upcoming general election that must be held by March 2023, according to NIDA.

Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the progressive Move Forward Party, the second-largest in the opposition, came in third, trailing “no choice” in second. Incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who came to power following the 2014 coup, was a distant fourth, with just 11.68 percent supporting him, according to the survey released earlier this week.

In the previous NIDA survey, in March, Paetongtarn finished fourth.

In the more recent poll, among political parties, Pheu Thai was the top choice for 36 percent of respondents. The Move Forward came in third at 18 percent, just a point behind “no choice.” Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat finished fourth with 7 percent support.

 

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Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (second from right) poses for a family photo celebrating the graduation of his daughter, Paetongtarn, from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, July 10, 2008. [Chaiwat Subprasom/Reuters]

Who is Paetongtarn?

Paetongtarn calls herself the “little girl” of Thaksin, who regularly appears on her Instagram and Facebook pages, which have nearly 1 million followers.

Born in the United States, she grew up in Thailand and graduated with a degree in political science from Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Paetongtarn studied for a master’s degree in hotel management at Surrey University in England and led a high-profile life since then, managing her family’s hotel business and being written about in glossy magazines.

From his self-exile, billionaire patriarch Thaksin, 72, regularly engages on social media with his supporters under his alias “Tony Woodsome” and has expressed a desire to “return home.” Since Thaksin’s ouster in a 2006 coup, military and ultra-royalist elites have worked to dismantle his political machine without much success, experts said.

Thaksin and Yingluck have both been sentenced to prison in absentia for abuse of power, negligence and corruption, following what they claim were politically-motivated prosecutions. 

The latest iteration of the Pheu Thai Party is the single largest party in the parliament following the 2019 general election, with 136 of 500 seats. It could not form the government because Prayuth relied on the Senate and a coalition in the House to support him as prime minister.

In October 2021, Paetongtarn was named chief adviser on participation and innovation, her first role in the party. In March, the party introduced her as head of the Pheu Thai Family, a party component. Since then, she has campaigned and participated in Pheu Thai outreach programs.

Many supporters said she was elevated to attract young voters. In the NIDA poll, participants cited Pheu Thai policies, past works of the Thaksin family and yearning for a member of the new generation to take over, as reasons to back her.

Prayuth, who is facing his fourth no-confidence vote in July, was unfazed by the poll results. He said voters should back candidates based on performance, not on opinions.

“A poll is just a poll,” Prayuth said. “I work and assess the achievement by myself. Whether people like my work is up to them. I serve everyone and conduct my duties without bias.”

Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, a deputy prime minister and head of the Palang Pracharat Party, admitted the “sagging popularity” of the coalition while saying he was not worried.

“We can fix it. All members must be united and cooperate. ... The poll result is what it is. It’s up to the people,” he said.

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Paetongtarn Shinawatra gestures during the Pheu Thai party’s meeting in Bangkok, April 24, 2022. [Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

‘We haven’t seen her’

As the election nears, Yingcheep Atchanont, a lawyer and program manager at local NGO iLaw, said a vote for Paetongtarn is not just for her, but for the party.

“We haven’t seen her for a decade … we haven’t seen her role in public at all,” Yingcheep told BenarNews. “But it’s not surprising that her name appears now because we know that she and other family members are interested in politics.

“Anyone, who looks smart enough and is nominated by the Pheu Thai Party would be quite popular. Whoever Pheu Thai would propose will likely be voted in the survey as the top prime minister candidate.”

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s political science faculty, told Thai PBS in October that Paetongtarn’s elevation showed that the Shinawatra family was reclaiming “ownership” over the party, a typical practice of Thai political dynasties.

A Thai senator, meanwhile, said that Paetongtarn should not be the next prime minister even if the Pheu Thai wins the next election, warning that her “political ambitions might end up in the same fashion as her predecessors.”

Appointing the prime minister is not the same as choosing an executive in a business company, said Wanchai Sornsiri, a junta-appointed senator and law professor. In a Facebook post, he warned that Paetongtarn has never been elected to public office and lacked needed maturity.

A local Thai businessman accused Thaksin of puppeteering Pheu Thai, and said that if Paetongtarn “revitalized the Shinawatras and brought Thaksin back home without serving his jail time, history will repeat itself.

“She will face protests by most people,” Sam Sanin told BenarNews. “Thai politics is full of corrupt people, who only work for themselves and their kin, so there will be turmoil and coups again.”

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