BANGKOK (Reuters) - With her stunning leap from the boardroom to head of government in less than three months, Yingluck Shinawatra has shaken up Thai politics with a revival of the populist legacy of her exiled brother and former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
The 44-year-old businesswoman was catapulted from relative obscurity to stardom in a matter of days, and, with her good looks and down-to-earth approach, she quickly won over the poor who elected Thaksin twice and saw Yingluck as their best hope of bringing him home.
A political novice who shied away from the spotlight in the past, Yingluck’s grace and modesty while taking on her brother’s enemies earned her widespread respect, even among opponents eager to score points but wary of disparaging her.
Just 48 days before the July 3 election, Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party was in disarray. Thaksin was trying to organize the campaign from his villa in Dubai, unable to come home because a two-year prison sentence for abuse of power awaits him.
His decision to thrust his barely known sister into the spotlight looked baffling at first but quickly came to be seen as a masterstroke as she wooed the crowds and stole the headlines from outgoing premier Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Soon after her May 16 nomination, Puea Thai surged ahead in the opinion polls.
State television channels gave her campaign unusually wide coverage, and images of a smiling Yingluck, sleeves rolled up, cooking Thai specialties, riding tractors or receiving red roses were splashed across newspaper front pages for weeks.
For the first time in eight decades of turbulent Thai democracy, a woman had a good chance of becoming prime minister.
“It was a definitely a smart strategy. She had charisma, a fresh face and she showed her Thai side in not being aggressive and really reinforced the Thaksin brand,” said Danny Richards, a London-based analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“It was a risk, but there was no one who could lead the party, no big names or personalities that could take on the Thaksin mantle and win the election,” Richards said.
Despite being born into one of Thailand’s most famous political families, Yingluck, who is known by friends, family and the media by the nickname “Pou” (crab) was seen as the least likely to run for office.
Her education and experience has been purely business-focused. After graduating from Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand then Kentucky State University in the United States in 1991, she started work in the family’s business empire, first as a marketing intern for its telephone directory company.
She rose to the rank of CEO of cellphone operator Advanced Info Service Pcl (AIS) in 2002 and then president of the family’s property firm, SC Asset corporation, a position she held until the end of June.
Yingluck was not a familiar face among Thailand’s business socialites, preferring to spend time with common-law husband Anusorn Amornchat, managing director of mobile handset distributor M-Link Asia Corp, and her nine-year-old son Supasek, who was often beside her on the campaign.
At rallies and in media interviews she was polite and affable, but prone to nerves and slip-ups. After cameras stopped rolling, she sometimes asked reporters for feedback on her performance.
Now she has an economy to manage and the poor who elected her to satisfy.
It may be even harder to juggle contradictory demands when it comes to her brother. The poor see him as their savior; the elite and the army that conspired to oust him in 2006 see him as a corrupt, authoritarian outlaw.
Although Thaksin’s name, planning and powerful political marketing brought Yingluck to office, he could be a bane as much as a boon. Many believe Thaksin’s hunger for power and his hands-on approach could be Yingluck’s undoing.
“Once the real task of governing begins under Yingluck, more and more people are concerned Thaksin will be more of an obstacle than a boost for his own anointed substitute,” wrote Nation newspaper columnist Suthichai Yoon.
“Yingluck’s real challenge isn’t even how to implement all the election promises. It is, first and foremost, her own credibility as a real leader.”
Editing by Alan Raybould / Daniel Magnowski