BANGKOK – Thailand’s most popular politician, Mr Thaksin Shinawatra, has not set foot in the country since 2008.
Now his 36-year-old daughter is the latest family member seeking to push back against the military men that helped oust him – and potentially bring him back home.
Ahead of an election on May 14, Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra has drawn big crowds in rural Thai farming communities that have long served as the political base of her father.
The 73-year-old former prime minister and telecom tycoon, who fled in the wake of a military coup against his government, has seen his party and allies win the most seats in every national vote dating back to 2001.
This year looks no different so far, in large part thanks to Ms Paetongtarn.
On a recent sunny morning in Thailand’s north-east – the nation’s poorest and most populous region – thousands of red-shirted supporters of her Pheu Thai party greeted her with roses and garlands.
When she asked if they remembered her dad, the crowd erupted. She also referred to her aunt, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2014 coup by Mr Prayut Chan-o-cha – a former army chief who has ruled Thailand since that time.
“Choose a political party that’s been bullied again and again,” Ms Paetongtarn pleaded to supporters. “Two coups, and two good people have had to flee the country. This time, can I ask you to deliver Pheu Thai a landslide win?”
The youngest of Thaksin’s three children, Ms Paetongtarn is the latest face of a Shinawatra clan that has dominated elections but routinely been booted out of office.
For years a coterie of unelected generals, judges and bureaucrats have viewed the family as a threat to the royalist elites that control some of the nation’s most powerful institutions – and businesses.
The political infighting has eroded Thailand’s relative economic strength in South-east Asia and hurt engagement with the United States, which had developed strong military ties with the nation during the Vietnam War.
Over the past decade, Thailand has attracted less foreign direct investment than regional competitors Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, and last year it posted the slowest growth rate among South-east Asia’s major economies.
There is not much optimism things will change much no matter who wins, not least because even a sweeping victory for pro-democracy forces is only likely to spur yet another backlash from conservatives in the military and royalist circles.
For now, most major parties are promising a similar package of cash handouts, higher minimum wages and a suspension of debt repayments.
Thailand’s SET Index has lost 3.8 per cent so far this year, the worst performance in South-east Asia apart from Malaysia.
“With key parties and premiership contenders not offering dramatically different economic visions for the country, the main implications of the elections for investors will be around political uncertainty and social stability risks,” said Mr Peter Mumford, practice head for South-east Asia at Eurasia Group.
Just after Ms Paetongtarn’s debut with Pheu Thai in 2021, Mr Prayut was asked by reporters what he thought of her stepping into politics. The prime minister responded with one word: “Who?”
But Ms Paetongtarn rose quickly in the polls, and now has a healthy lead over Mr Prayut. A quarterly survey released this month by National Institute of Development Administration found that she was the top choice of voters at 38.2 per cent, more than double the support for Mr Prayut.
Right now it is unclear if Pheu Thai or Ms Paetongtarn will even be able to take power if it wins the most seats. A constitution drafted after the last coup allows the 250-member senate, a body stacked with allies from the military establishment, to vote for prime minister until 2024.
That means Ms Paetongtarn’s Pheu Thai party needs to win at least 376 seats in the 500-member house of representatives to counter the senate’s likely move to block its final candidate for prime minister. The party won 136 seats in 2019 under rules designed to hurt its performance, more than any other single group but not enough to prevent Mr Prayut from returning to power with support from a military-backed coalition.
Ms Paetongtarn, who is expecting her second child around the election date, has said she is “100 per cent ready” for the party’s official nomination for prime minister.
Election rules say each party may nominate up to three potential people to take the job prior to the vote.
If selected for the top job after the election, Ms Paetongtarn will be among a small group of women politicians who become prime ministers in their 30s. She will also become the youngest Thai prime minister.
In a Facebook post in January, Ms Paetongtarn said being a mother inspired her to enter politics.
“When you’re a mother, you will love your children more than anything,” she wrote. “So much that you will make a big decision to want to change this country for the better.”
Before her meteoric rise, Ms Paetongtarn had a front-row seat to her father’s career. At eight years old, she tagged along with Mr Thaksin on his first government job as foreign minister. At 20, she hunkered down in a safe house when military tanks patrolled Bangkok streets as the army seized power from her father. Two years later, she watched as her father left Thailand to avoid a corruption conviction he said was politically motivated.
“This path is in my DNA. It’s inseparable from me,” she said in a recently published book about Mr Thaksin’s legacy. “I’m my father’s daughter after all.”
Even Mr Thaksin seemed surprised by how well she is doing on the campaign trail.
“I initially thought she would help the party by being a magnet, attracting attention and popularity among supporters,” he said in an interview last week with Nikkei Asia. “But she was so mature that I think she seriously helped the party out.”
Mr Thaksin told the media outlet that he expected Pheu Thai to win at least 50 per cent of the 500 seats up for grabs. He added that he would like to return even if meant serving time in jail, adding that he did not want the government to push for an amnesty – something his sister’s administration initiated before the 2014 coup.
Outside of politics, Ms Paetongtarn is a key player in the Shinawatra business empire spanning a golf course and real estate to hospitality and telecommunications. She is the largest shareholder of publicly traded property firm SC Asset Corp Pcl, with a 28.5 per cent stake worth about 5.2 billion baht (S$202 million), according to data compiled by Bloomberg. BLOOMBERG