Yingluck Shinawatra Voted In As Thailand's First Female Prime Minister
BANGKOK — Thai lawmakers elected U.S.-educated businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra as the country's first female prime minister Friday, setting the stage for the 44-year-old political novice to take charge of a volatile nation that's been deeply divided since her brother was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Before Yingluck can officially assume the post, however, King Bhumibol Adulyadej must endorse her in a separate ceremony expected to take place as early as Friday evening.
The vote comes a month after Yingluck's Pheu Thai party swept the country's July 3 elections, winning an absolute majority of 265 seats in the 500-member lower house of Parliament. Since then, Pheu Thai has consolidated those gains, building alliances with smaller parties to form a 300-seat-strong coalition.
But Thailand's people remain split, and Yingluck will face the immediate challenge of keeping the country clear of the sometimes violent unrest it has witnessed since the army toppled her now-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
To do so, she must navigate complex political terrain and find a delicate equilibrium between the coup-prone army and the elite establishment on one side, and the so-called Red Shirt movement on the other. The Red Shirts helped vote her into office and want to see justice meted out for the bloody military crackdown that ended its protests in Bangkok last year.
Analysts say Pheu Thai's landslide victory last month boosted Thailand's prospects for stability in the short-term, but that honeymoon may only last a few months.
"To reinforce the stability of her government, Yingluck must find a way to work in harmony with the military and the conservative powers without affecting what the Red Shirts have been fighting for," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
It won't be easy.
The party Yingluck heads is the latest incarnation of Thaksin's original Thai Rak Thai party, which swept elections twice before Thaksin was overthrown. Two pro-Thaksin prime ministers who followed were removed after hostile judicial rulings and parliamentary maneuvering that came as enraged "Yellow Shirt" demonstrators took to the streets, at one point shutting down both of Bangkok's international airports and stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers.
The Red Shirts have fought back, most recently by flooding downtown Bangkok in 2010 for two months in demonstrations that ended with more than 90 people dead and nearly 2,000 wounded – almost all of them protesters.
Yingluck's swift rise in the space of just a few months – from political unknown to holder of the nation's highest government job – is largely attributable to the fact that she is Thaksin's sister. Despite living thousands of miles (kilometers) away in the desert city of Dubai to escape a two-year prison sentence for graft he says was politically motivated, Thaksin remains wildly popular among supporters at home.
Now, Yingluck must prove she is not her brother's puppet, as critics claim, and deal with the controversial issue of his possible return from self-imposed exile under a general amnesty, which would enrage his opponents and could destabilize Thailand.
"We'll have to see if she can make her own decisions or will have to listen to orders from Dubai," Siripan said.
Thaksin, now 62, is legally banned from Thai politics, but he remains one of the country's most polarizing and influential figures – a point underlined by one of Pheu Thai's campaign slogans: "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts."
Yingluck will become Thailand's 28th prime minister, the country's fifth since the 2006 coup.
Born June 21, 1967, Yingluck was raised in the northern province of Chiang Mai the youngest of 10 siblings. The Shinawatra family ran several businesses in the country's second-biggest city, including a cinema where a young and diligent Yingluck helped her parents sell tickets.
Old snapshots from that time unearthed by the Thai press show her in makeup and parade costumes, with neatly braided hair.
"Everyone remembered her because she was the beautiful one," a high school teacher said in an interview with VoiceTV, the Thai cable news channel founded by her nephew Panthongtae.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in public administration in 1988 from her hometown university, Yingluck went to the U.S. to pursue a master's degree in the same field at Kentucky State University.
Upon her return to Thailand in 1991, Yingluck became a saleswoman at Shinawatra Directories, a Yellow Pages publisher owned by Thaksin. She then climbed the career ladder at other family businesses, most notably at the mobile phone provider AIS, then the Shinawatra flagship enterprise. Her last position before entering politics was as president of SC Asset, a Shinawatra real estate development arm.
Now a mother of a 9-year-old, Yingluck collects perfume bottles of different sizes and likes to play golf with her family in her free time.
She says her business acumen will serve the country well despite her lack of hands-on political experience.
"In terms of the principles of politics, I think I understand well," Yingluck told The Associated Press in an interview before the July 3 election, pointing out that parents and siblings alike have served as politicians. Thailand "needs someone who has leadership, who has the management skills to help the country."
Those skills will be tested on the economic front as Yingluck will be pressed to deliver on campaign promises of a big increase in the minimum wage, credit cards for farmers and tablet computers for schoolchildren. The populist theme played well with voters, but critics claim the treasury can't sustain them.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Todd Pitman contributed to this report.