Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thailand’s Luck-y charm


Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva may have been the poster boy of ‘political freshness’ in the 2007 polls but this time around, it is Yingluck Shinawatra, youngest sister of his fugitive predecessor Thaksin who is stealing the thunder with her natural charm.

IN the streets of Bangkok, on her campaign posters, Yingluck Shinawatra is dressed in a white shirt and black jacket.

The collar of the shirt worn by Thaksin’s youngest sister and the opposition Pheu Thai No. 1 party-list candidate is – in the words of Chris Baker, a Thai politics expert, – “plain and the lapel of the jacket is unnotched”.

“The outfit is more that of a lawyer than a businesswoman. The makeup is unobtrusive. She has no insignia and virtually no jewellery. There is a trace of an earring on her left ear but it is scarcely visible,’ wrote Baker in New Mandala, an online site devoted to the politics and societies of Thailand and Burma.

“The message of the costuming is simplicity and seriousness.”

Baker, who has authored several books on Thailand including Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, opined that Yingluck’s image has been “sex-down rather than the opposite.”

Yingluck’s poster, according to Baker, was a reminder that Thaksin “has always understood the importance of communication and especially of visual communication.”

In all major opinion polls, Yingluck’s Pheu Thai is leading against the ruling party Democrat led by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the poster boy of “political freshness” in the 2007 polls.

This year, the fresh face of Thai politics is 44-year-old Yingluck. The businesswoman has never run for political office. But since she was revealed as Pheu Thai’s prime minister candidate last month, she has replaced 47-year-old Abhisit as the national darling.

To get an understanding on how a political rookie like Yingluck could rise to rock star status in a short period, I spoke to Suranand Vejjajiva, who served in the Thaksin cabinet. I was also curious to know whether her success was due to political marketing.

“The two factors that you have to consider with Yingluck are the candidate herself and the political machinery behind her,” explained Suranand, who is now a political analyst and the first cousin of Abhisit.

“There is no question about (the effectiveness) of the Pheu Thai machinery. It is the same machinery which Thaksin built 10 years ago – we were there building it. It is a machinery which has won the past three elections – two under Thai Rak Thai (TRT) and one under People Power Party (PPP),” he said.

(After the 2006 coup which ousted Thaksin, TRT was dissolved and 111 party leaders including Thaksin and Suranand were banned from politics for five years by the constitutional court. TRT was re-incarnated as PPP, which was dissolved in 2009 by the constitutional court. The Thaksinites politicians regrouped under Pheu Thai party.)

Suranand points out that the effectiveness of the Pheu Thai political machinery was evident in the party’s campaign posters.

“If you walk on the street and you don’t have any biasness, you will see that the Pheu Thai posters stand out,” he explained.

The message of TRT/PPP/Pheu Thai, according to the political analyst, has always been about hope and opportunity.

“Thaksin has always been keen to convey the message that if you vote for his party, you will have economic opportunity,” he said.

The party’s machinery was also effective in mobilising the masses to its rallies. Pheu Thai’s rallies have more people than other parties, observed the political analyst.

But having a well-oiled political machinery backing Yingluck would not have been enough if she was not a natural campaigner.

“She has got her brother’s charm. She is a natural. She can blend with the common people,” he explained.

This is evident from the photographs of Yingluck in her campaign trail. Take the example of a Reuters photograph of her in Yala, Thailand’s restive deep south. Wearing a red scarf (of course red as Pheu Thai and the Red shirts are the same) she looks so gorgeous and natural as her head leans on a tudung-clad Muslim woman who was taking their picture on her mobile phone.

“She can do whatever a politician can do and . . . she looks better,” said Suranand.

“Being good looking helps but it does not mean you are a natural campaigner. There are many movie stars who ran unsuccessfully for public office in Thailand.”

“You have to give credit to Yingluck as she is able to reach out and touch the voters. The two combinations – Pheu Thai’s machinery and Yingluck’s charm – seem to work and that is why her polls are skyrocketing,” he said.

Suranand shook his head when asked how the political newbie became a natural campaigner.

“I don’t think Yingluck is trained to be that way. She is one of those people who are like Bill Clinton. Clinton can meet anyone and make him feel comfortable. Yingluck has that same quality,” he explained.

“I’ve worked with Thaksin before and he has that quality too. But for his other brothers and sisters, they don’t have that. They (Thaksin’s other siblings) have good personal relationships but not the charisma to draw the crowd.”

I asked Suranand about his personal impression of Yingluck.

“I might be a little biased as I know Thaksin very well. I’ve met Yingluck from time to time, even after the coup. She is always a nice lady – courteous, talks well, lively and very smart,” he said.

Is there a political script that Yingluck is following?

“They (her campaign managers) have analysed that the people are bored with the usual bickering in Thai politics. She is careful not to antagonise anyone or engage in mudslinging,” Suranand said.

“If she starts attacking the Democrats (who are good at counter-attack), it will make the frontpages and she will just be a normal politician. So they (her campaign managers) are trying to keep her away from all this bickering so that she can talk about the future (reconciliation in politically-divided Thailand) without being caught in a shouting match with the Democrats.”

The other advantage Yingluck has over Abhisit is freshness.

“I have a feeling that the people want change and they want to work with a new face rather than stay with a group of old politicians,” Suranand said.

“It is a short campaign (about six weeks) and if she was running in an American-style one-year presidential elections, it might be tough for her.”

Yingluck also benefits from good press relationship.

“Business reporters who covered her as a businesswoman liked her very much and that helps in terms of word of mouth,” said Suranand.

“When political reporters asked about her, the business reporters told them that she is a nice lady and she is down to earth.”

The cable TV and radio talk show host added: “I have not heard anything bad about her from the media covering the campaign trail. I am told she is always nice.”

Going back to the Pheu Thai campaign message, Suranand said the party wanted to reinforce the Thaksin brand.

“Thais – whether they hate or love Thaksin – acknowledge that he is a capable and competent manager and he has been very successful in managing the country. And they (Pheu Thai think tank) have done their surveys and found that Thaksin is still very popular. So they have come up with a campaign slogan – ‘Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai implements’,” he said.

“And when Yingluck (was picked to be Pheu Thai’s No. 1 candidate), the message of the slogan become stronger as Yingluck is Thaksin definitely. If you picked another Pheu Thai leader (to be the party’s prime minister candidate), he would not have been the real thing.”

Comparing Abhisit and Yingluck to a mobile phone, Suranand said Abhisit was the first generation of BlackBerry phones whereas Yingluck was the new version of the smartphone.


Anonymous said...

Great interview with Suranand whose analysis of what makes Yingluck such a superior candidate seems spot on.

Reeves said...

She will win hands-down tomorrow. A lovely lady who has kept on with the message Thailand CAN move forward and reconcile. While Abhisit has just shown "more of the same" - attack, attack, attack.

I speak to many on-the-street Thais every day and around 90% plan on voting for Yingluck tomorrow.

Good luck to her. I think she'll make an excellent PM, if she's anything like her brother.