Analysis: Yingluck’s Strange Strategy

They kept up a good show until the very end–Yingluck’s emotional tours of Pheu Thai’s political strongholds, pledging at each stop to face the junta’s charges and that justice would prevail…

It was a strange tact that had the effect of legitimizing the junta’s legal cases against her and other Pheu Thai government ministers. The cases, meant to warn other future MPs not to act on Thaksin’s behalf, could easily have been derided as politically motivated and brought by an unaccountable dictatorship.

Pheu Thai’s rice-pledging scheme was indeed flawed at many levels. It was essentially a plan to raid the nations coffers to reward supporters of one political party–all to enable government stability so that a Thaksin amnesty of some sort could be enacted. (This was a savvy readjustment from the last party Thaksin directed–the People Power Party. When that government came to power, it refused to govern, claimed the country was in crisis, and insisted that a constitutional rewrite had to come first. In contrast, the Pheu Thai made sure it was first a party of action with many populist programs to legitimize its rule.)

Yingluck’s publicly tours over recent months encouraged others in the party, facing similar cases, to have confidence to face the charges and to believe that the system stacked against them would rule in their favor.

This strategy was also strange because the use of Yingluck as prime minister was expressly designed so she could never be held culpable for the controversial actions the government was going to take. As prime minister, she was absent from controversial cabinet meetings and sent on publicly grabbing public appearance tours in the provinces when ministers were debating the machinations necessary to deliver on amnesty.

After the coup, the junta seemed unnerved to witness the long Yingluck campaign throughout the North and Northeast with pledges that she would take responsibly, did nothing wrong and would rely on the court’s decision.

But isn’t Thaksin popular? Can’t he win again?

Voters are not voting directly for Thaksin or his family members. They are ultimately supporting MPs–many of whom have been in politics decades before Thaksin came on the scene.

These MPs are powerful local figures who are almost always aligned in political cliques–which are in turn led by a head MP skilled at maneuvering the clique into a political party that will be part of a ruling government. It takes decades, and sometimes generations, of influence and relationship building for these “boss” MPs to creates their political groupings. All the more reason to deride the notion that Yingluck, unheard of a few weeks before she assumed the premiership, actually made any decisions in the Pheu Thai-led government.

Thaksin’s oft-touted majority in government came from buying out existing political parities composed of these cliques and then uniting them–reportedly at a huge cost. It also is a huge cost to keep them aligned under his remote leadership.

Thus, the real story is not who wins the elections, but how factions form to include or exclude Thaksin control. These incumbent regional MPs are difficult to unseat for a variety of reasons. Once elections are held, these figures, backed by their own local political machines, will be returned to power with very few exceptions. Based on the political climate, they are likely already evaluating realigning themselves under new political groupings.

Even a shift in Pheu Thai Party leadership to a non-Shinawatra family member carries grave risks for Thaksin’s control of the party. Any other leader has their own factions and commitments. In the past, Thaksin very specifically choose either an outsider with no political faction (Samak) or a family member (Somchai, Yingluck) as these people could be counted on to be loyal to Thaksin’s ultimate goals–amnesty for himself.

It could be that the Pheu Thai remains more or less united. After all, running on Thaksin’s coattails, evening continuing to claim they will try to bring him back, has proven effective. Then, however, the new political realities of the highly restrictive charter and the exile of Yingluck would mean a future government would not be so willing to risk their success on trying to act for Thaksin’s benefit.

The Pheu Thai in particular had everything going its way when they led the government last time. They were able to act nearly without any check, passing massive spending programs of all sorts that benefited their base and resulted in widespread popularity even outside of typical Thaksin strongholds.

However, they then had to risk their unprecedented success and unassailable position of power for a convoluted amnesty and constitutional rewrite designed to cover all of Thaksin’s time as prime minister as well as the post-2006 coup cases that led to his long exile.

The present junta’s charges against the Pheu Thai are designed to have a chilling effect–letting future government ministers know that if they act on Thaksin’s behalf like this again, they can be punished.

Loyal Pheu Thai government ministers are already facing long incarcerations–one verdict being handed down on the same day Yingluck fled. This emphasizes to the political class that the Shinawatra family respects no loyalty from non-family members. It emphasizes that others who act on their behalf, be they ministers or Red Shirts, are expendable.

There are many sincere people, not necessarily aligned with Thaksin, who nevertheless saw his parties as the only avenues of change and reform in the nation. However, Red Shirts, anti-monarchy agitators, student activists, and rank and file MPs will have to pause before putting themselves on the line for Pheu Thai’s policies again.

As we have earlier discussed (Thailand’s Half Democracy), a passing of Thaksin from the political scene will return Thai politics to its more traditional quandary–the role of the military in politics. The signals to look for are if current political factions, particularly in the Pheu Thai, reorganize–either by actually moving away from the party or from leadership changes that impact Thaksin control.

The surprise over Yingluck’s exile is the strongest signal yet that a future government may be made immune from Thaksin control.

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