BANGKOK – The sister of Thailand’s fugitive former prime minister led his loyalists to a landslide election victory Sunday, a stunning rout of the military-backed government that last year crushed protests by his supporters with a bloody crackdown that left the capital in flames.
The results pave the way for Thaksin Shinawatra’s youngest sister, widely considered his proxy, to become the nation’s first female prime minister – if the coup-prone Thai army accepts the results.
The Southeast Asian kingdom has been wracked by upheaval since 2006, when Thaksin was toppled in a military coup amid accusations of corruption and a rising popularity that some saw as a threat to the nation’s revered monarchy.
The coup touched off a schism between the country’s haves and have-nots, pitting the marginalized rural poor who hailed Thaksin’s populism against an elite establishment bent on defending the status quo that sees him as a corrupt autocrat. Last year’s violent demonstrations by “Red Shirt” protesters – most of them Thaksin backers – and the subsequent crackdown marked the boiling over of those divisions.
On Sunday, though, they played out at the ballot box in a vote that will decide the shape of Thailand’s fragile democracy.
The Pheu Thai party was led to an overwhelming victory by Thaksin’s 44-year-old sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, a U.S.-educated businesswoman selected by her billionaire brother.
He has called her his “clone.” The party’s slogan is: “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai Acts.”
From exile 3,000 miles away in the desert emirate of Dubai, the 61-year-old Thaksin hailed the outcome. “People are tired of a standstill,” he said in an interview broadcast on Thai television. “They want to see change in a peaceful manner.”
At her party headquarters across town, Yingluck told an electrified crowd of supporters: “I don’t want to say that Pheu Thai wins today. It’s a victory of the people.”
Thaksin and his proxies have won the country’s past four elections. By contrast, the Democrat party – backed by big business, the military and circles around the royal palace – has not won a popular vote since 1992.
Though he has been widely criticized for abuse of power and decried for a streak of authoritarian rule that has polarized Thailand, Thaksin has nevertheless “become a symbol of democracy for his supporters,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
Thailand’s democratic process has been repeatedly thwarted over the years, with 18 successful or attempted military coups since the 1930s.