Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sexing up the race for PM

By Philip Golingai

IT is the Puppet versus the Clone in the coming Thai elections.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is seen by critics as a politician manipulated by puppet masters – the oligarchy, the military and the hidden hand. The Democrat Party leader who has been prime minister since December 2008 is hoping voters will return him to power on July 3.

Exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra described his younger sister Yingluck as his “clone” after his party Pheu Thai nominated her as lead candidate on May 16. Yingluck is Thaksin’s hope in returning to power after the courts dissolved the pro-Thaksin ruling party in 2008.

With her telegenic good looks and Shinawatra DNA, the 43-year-old CEO is sexing up the rather tense elections in a country where 92 people – including soldiers – were killed and about 2,000 were injured during the two month-long pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protest last year.

On May 22, in the Bangkok Post, Voranai Vanijaka wrote: “Check out the news, surf web forums, eavesdrop on conversations, have discussions with friends and colleagues, and you might find that, perhaps not all, perhaps not even the majority, but a good number of people are excited.

“They are afflicted with Yingluck fever. She’s a woman and she’s hot, and the surname is also quite relevant.”

The Prime Minister is also equally good-looking. At 46, Abhisit is young and photogenic.
“There are a good many women, including some trapped in men’s bodies – and there are countless of them in this kingdom – who melt at the sight of PM Abhisit,” wrote Voranai.

Bangkok Pundit, who blogs on Thai politics, observed that Thais’ reaction to Yingluck has been more positive than negative.

“Most people didn’t know what to expect of Yingluck as she has not had a prominent public role. She doesn’t have a powerful voice for giving speeches but she is very good at interacting with voters at the market,” he noted.

“She is also quite different from Thaksin. Thaksin was known to be abrasive whereas she is very feminine.”

Abhisit was born in Newcastle, England. He studied in Eton College (which has produced 18 British prime ministers in the past 400 years). He earned a politics, philosophy and economics degree and a master’s degree in economics at Oxford University.

Yingluck holds a master’s degree in political science from Kentucky State University, USA. She has run SC Asset Corp, a Thaksin-owned property company. She was also on the board of Manchester City Football Club until Thaksin sold it in 2008.

“If the Thai polls was a beauty contest, who would win?” I asked Suranand Vejjajiva, Abhisit’s first cousin who is with the opposite political camp (he served in Thaksin’s cabinet).

Suranand, now a political analyst after he was banned from politics together with 110 Thaksinites for five years after Thaksin was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006, chuckled. “You are talking to a man, (Yingluck wins) as I prefer a woman.”

Turning serious, he added: “This time, Thais are looking at a woman to run the country.”
Suranand observed that Abhisit and Yingluck are “quite an interesting pair” who possess different strengths and weaknesses.

“Abhisit is a veteran politician who has been an MP for 20 years. He is the most eloquent speaker who is second to none. But he has no experience in the private sector. He doesn’t understand how the business sector works and that is reflected in his two years as PM.

“He has baggage with the bloody crackdown against the Reds. And he has to explain the country’s economic problems – price increase and inflation,” he said in a telephone interview.

“Yingluck is fresh and she doesn’t have any baggage. She’s got the back-up of her brother (Thaksin, 61) and the Pheu Thai machinery. She has business experience.

“The Democrats have attacked her for not having political experience. She can be the one who can bring the people together (the great political and social divide in Thailand between the pro-Thaksin Reds and anti-Thaksin Yellows).”

“Is Yingluck sexing up the elections?” I asked Suranand.

“She is. Yingluck is not the most beautiful woman in Thailand but she has Thaksin’s charm. She is able to attract the attention of the common people. She has made herself accessible to them,” he answered.

The distinctly upper-class Abhisit, in Suranand’s eyes, is aloof.

However, Abhisit’s good looks will always win him votes, he said.

“There are many Thai women who love him. He is still popular among his supporters. A question in this election is whether Yingluck can steal those female voters from Abhisit.”

Worapol Promigabutr, an academic, said Thais perceived Yingluck as a modern CEO who is not a professional politician.

“She is not a ‘dirty politician’ whom Thais despise. Abhisit looks clean but he uses his power in favour of corrupt businessmen,” he said, adding that the same accusation had been levelled against Thaksin.

Pitch Pongsawat, who teaches political science in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, opined that many women who went gaga over Abhisit no longer think he is the national Prince Charming. Thais, he said, were unhappy with the Prime Minister’s action in the past two years.

But Pitch is positive about Yingluck, saying “she has a good profile as a successful businesswoman.”

“People believe that her femininity will not create big confrontation or tension. In Thai culture, in our concept of manliness, it is difficult for a tough guy (for example, the military) to talk tough with a young woman.”

ML Nattakorn Devakula, host of the English-language news show The Daily Dose, said Red Shirt supporters and hardcore Thaksin loyalists supported Yingluck because she is a Shinawatra and a nominee of Thaksin.

“Yet many others simply feel that Abhisit had his shot for two and half years and despite strong support from the establishment and military, he was unable to pursue effective reform and handle the country’s deepening political divide,” explained Nattakorn via e-mail.

“Many just feel: let the Pheu Thai/Red faction have a shot at returning to power and see whether they can do better. Some are also nostalgic of the 2000 to 2006 Thai Rak Thai (Thaksin’s ruling party) days when the economy was shooting sky-high.”

On whether looks mattered in Thai politics, Bangkok Pundit said being telegenic does help in garnering attention.

“Yingluck is clearly an extrovert and she comes across as friendly and open when talking to people.”

In the past, noted Pitch, looks were important as there was no big conflict in Thai society.
“You can present yourself as a well-educated fresh faced candidate. But now what matters is ‘Are you with me or against me?’”

So who will win, the Puppet or the Clone? Pheu Thai or the Democrats?

According to Worapol, the opposition party Pheu Thai will win about 300 of the 500 seats up for grabs.

“It will be a landslide if there is no interference from the Interior Ministry and other institutions,” he said. “If you believe the opinion polls, Thais are coming to a point of getting to be bored or disillusioned with Abhisit. A fresh face like Yingluck is making them excited,” Suranand said.

“Of course, in the next 30 days or so a lot can happen. Bangkokians do not trust Thaksin but because of the incompetency of this present government, they will throw their weight behind Yingluck if the polls were held now.”

Nattakorn echoed Suranand’s sentiment. “The Bangkok business community prefer Yingluck’s business experience to Abhisit’s lacklustre level of experience in management,” he said.

“However, it is still very early in the race. We still have six weeks to go before elections. We’ll see whether Yingluck flames out.”