Thailand’s most popular politician, Thaksin Shinawatra, hasn’t 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, 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 Paetongtarn. On a recent sunny morning in Thailand’s northeast—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, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2014 coup by Prayuth Chan-Ocha—a former Army chief who has ruled Thailand ever since.
“Choose a political party that’s been bullied again and again,” 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, 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 Southeast Asia (SEA) and hurt engagement with the US, 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 SEA’s major economies.
There’s 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 percent so far this year, the worst performance in SEA 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 Peter Mumford, practice head for SEA at Eurasia Group.
Just after Paetongtarn’s debut with Pheu Thai in 2021, Prayuth was asked by reporters what he thought of her stepping into politics. The prime minister responded with one word: “Who?”
But Paetongtarn rose quickly in the polls, and now has a healthy lead over Prayuth. A quarterly survey released this month by National Institute of Development Administration found that she was the top choice of voters at 38.2 percent, more than double the support for Prayuth.
Right now it’s unclear if Pheu Thai or 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 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 Prayuth from returning to power with support from a military-backed coalition.
Paetongtarn, who is expecting her second child around the election date, has said she’s “100 percent 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, Paetongtarn will be among a small group of women politicians who became prime ministers in their 30s. She will also become the youngest Thai prime minister.
In a Facebook post in January, 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.”
Prior to her meteoric rise, Paetongtarn had a frontrow seat to her father’s career. At eight years old, she tagged along with Thaksin on his first government job as foreign minister. At 20, she hunkered down in a safehouse 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 Thaksin’s legacy. “I’m my father’s daughter after all.”
Even Thaksin seemed surprised by how well she’s 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.”
Thaksin told the media outlet that he expected Pheu Thai to win at least 50 percent 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 didn’t want the government to push for an amnesty—something his sister’s administration initiated before the 2014 coup.
“Thaksin’s homecoming is still an important agenda but Pheu Thai must tread carefully this time, especially with his beloved daughter on the line,” said Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University. “She’s in it to get justice for her father. That’s her mission, not the premiership.”
It’s not a given that Paetongtarn will be nominated for prime minister if Pheu Thai wins. Under Thai election rules, parties may nominate up to three names ahead of the election who could be considered for the position. Besides her, reports suggest the party will also name property tycoon Srettha Thavisin and one other candidate. Pheu Thai said it will confirm its choices by early April.
Pheu Thai is slightly concerned that Paetongtarn’s rise may cause “some friction” with how voters view the party, as many see her leadership as an “inheritance of power” rather than something she earned, according to deputy party leader Sutin Klungsang. But she has won many people over by being “kind-hearted and down to earth,” he added. Bloomberg News