Buoyed by an historic election result, Thailand’s new Prime Minister must harness fleeting political good will to address longstanding demographic and economic challenges.
Thailand selected its first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in elections held over the weekend. The historic electoral result also represents a landslide victory for Yingluck’s Pheu Tai Party (PTP) which captured over half the seats in the 500-seat parliament. Thai voters expressed their frustration over the economy at the ballot box by ousting the ruling Democrat Party led by current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Yingluck is the younger sister of the exiled former Thai leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006 amid accusations of abuse of power and corruption charges.
The historic election is not a cure-all for Thailand’s recent maladies. Thailand is still reeling from a government crackdown last year on “Red Shirt” pro-democracy demonstrators that left close to 100 people dead and paralyzed Bangkok’s downtown commercial area for several weeks. While Yingluck ran a largely forward-looking and positive campaign, concerns remain over the degree to which her ousted brother, Thaksin, may be pulling the puppet strings from his exile in Dubai. Yingluck will need to decide whether to grant amnesty to her brother or entrust his future to the Thai court system.
Thailand remains a country splintered by demographic and economic inequalities among the urban, educated elite and the rural, underprivileged class. Electoral analysis indicates voters were largely split along demographic lines with well-off city residents supporting the incumbent Democrat Party and indigent rural dwellers voting overwhelmingly for Yingluck and the PTP. The Thai military -- responsible for ousting Thaksin -- remains a powerful player in Thai politics and could alter the political landscape again.
Political instability in Bangkok could further complicate Thailand’s relations with its neighbors as well as its international reputation. Thailand has been hampered in recent years by a series of border skirmishes with Cambodia. Bangkok also is eager to attract a slice of the foreign investment pouring into Asia from the United States and Europe for much-needed infrastructure development projects.
Carolyn Leddy held senior positions with the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration. She was a 2009-2010 Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. International Affairs Fellow in Japan and Visiting Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.
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