Touting her billionaire family’s legacy of populism and massive election victories, Thailand’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra is emerging as the candidate to beat in coming polls, betting that nostalgia can win millions of working class votes.
Paetongtarn, 36, is campaigning hard in the vote-rich rural strongholds of the Shinawatra family’s Pheu Thai political juggernaut, hoping to reignite the kind of fervour that swept father Thaksin and aunt Yingluck to power in unprecedented landslides.
Political neophyte Paetongtarn is promising Pheu Thai will complete unfinished business from three stints in office since 2001, all of which were cut short by court rulings and military coups that it says were orchestrated by Thailand’s conservative establishment.
“We managed to fix everything in the first year but then four years later we were ousted by a coup, so there are things that we have not achieved,” Paetongtarn said in her first formal interview with foreign media ahead of the election, expected in May.
“So we go on each stage to tell people how our policies can change their lives. And only through stable politics can people’s lives change in a sustainable manner,” she said, while campaigning in the northeast.
Thaksin and Yingluck were toppled by the army in 2006 and 2014, respectively, despite overseeing much economic growth. Both live in self-imposed exile to avoid prison convictions their allies say were designed to prevent their political comebacks.
The baton has passed to Paetongtarn, Thaksin’s youngest daughter, who is using the same playbook in offering minimum wage increases, utilities subsidies, and long-promised high-speed rail systems and infrastructure to manage floods and droughts.
Pheu Thai’s slogan is “Think Big, Act Smart”, taking aim at incremental reforms by the military-backed governments of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha since he seized power in 2014.
“The picture has to be big and we must be able to address long-standing problems that festered. These must be completely dealt with,” Paetongtarn said.
Though yet to be named as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate, Paetongtarn is far ahead in the opinion polls, with twice the support of Prayuth.
Pheu Thai is expected to win most votes, but could struggle to lead a government given the military’s influence over an appointed Senate, which together with the elected lower house chooses the prime minister.
Paetongtarn said she consults regularly and remains close with her father, who lives mainly in Dubai. His chief worry, she said, was her campaigning while nearly seven months pregnant.
“But I’m OK,” she said. “This is my second pregnancy. I am aware of myself. I won’t go too hard.”
Despite their electoral popularity, the Shinawatras are loathed in Thailand as much as they are loved.
They have long been accused by opponents of cronyism to enrich business friends and of buying off the poor with wasteful populist policies. The Shinawatras deny the charges.
Thailand’s election is shaping up to be another grudge match between warring elites in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
Paetongtarn said she remains concerned about the impact of the country’s intractable power struggle involving her family, including coups, which she said makes Thailand “go backwards”.
“It also makes the world see our country in a different light. They don’t want to trade with us. It reduces the opportunities for everyone,” she said.
“Our country has been frozen for so long. So a coup should not take place again. The country must progress and people deserve to have better livelihoods.”