Paetongtarn Shinawatra: A coup ousted her father. Now she’s standing in Thailand’s election

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Bangkok, Thailand

Her father was ousted from power by a military coup in 2006. Her aunt’s government suffered a similar fate eight years later.

Now, Paetongtarn Shinawatra is set to become the latest member of Thailand’s famed political dynasty – after father Thaksin and aunt Yingluck – to take on the military as she bids to become the country’s next prime minister.

The opposition Pheu Thai party on Wednesday announced Paetongtarn, 36, as one of three prime ministerial candidates for the coming May election, alongside property tycoon Srettha Thavisin and former justice minister Chaikasem Nitisiri.

The decision sets up the possibility of a fascinating showdown between the young Shinawatra and Thailand’s incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former army chief who in 2014 seized power from the Pheu Thai government, after Paetongtarn’s aunt Yingluck was removed from power in a controversial court ruling.

And Paetongtarn has appeared keen to remind her supporters of that.

“We have won elections but also faced military coups,” Paetongtarn told several thousand supporters dressed in red, the party’s signature color, at a campaign rally this week.

And she pledged the party would win big again come May.

“We will together bring back democracy, bring back (our) nation and people’s prosperity which have been lost for almost a decade,” she said. “(Thais) have already suffered a lot. We don’t want another coup.”

Supporters of the Ruam Thai Sang Chart (United Thai Nation) Party hold placards of Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha.

To bring about that aim, the Pheu Thai party appears to be following a familiar game plan, having outlined the sort of populist policies that made Paetongtarn’s father Thaksin Shinawatra such a force to be reckoned with. Among Paetongtarn’s promises are to double the minimum wage, expand health care and cut fares on public transport.

With the economy still recovering from a pandemic that battered Thailand’s important tourism sector, those pledges alongside the appeal to democracy could well prove vote winners, with early polls suggesting Paetongtarn is a front-runner.

The vote in May will be Thailand’s first since youth-led mass pro-democracy protests in 2020 made unprecedented demands to curb the powers of both the monarchy and the military.

In Thailand, where the monarchy is deeply revered and insulting the king is a crime punishable by years in prison, such calls broke long-held taboos and shook the establishment.

Yet Paetongtarn’s party faces a greater obstacle than merely winning the most votes from the public. Political parties allied to Thaksin have won the most seats in every election since 2001, yet have struggled to hold on to power due to the military exerting its influence – whether through coups or other means.

This year’s election will see some 52 million eligible voters elect 500 members to the lower house in Thailand’s bicameral system. But under a constitution drafted by the military following the last coup, the 250-seat senate – which is stacked with allies of the military establishment – is also able to influence who becomes the next prime minister.

Born in 1986 in the capital Bangkok, Paetongtarn attended top schools in Thailand and the United Kingdom. Her foray into politics has been “a long time coming,” analysts said.

Growing up, she was frequently spotted with her father at official events when he was prime minister.

“She was very prominent and was often seen with him,” Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University told CNN. “Paetongtarn has Thaksin’s political instincts and she has a lot of things going for her as his youngest daughter,” he added.

A telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin had grown hugely popular with the rural poor thanks to his offers of affordable medical care, debt relief and his anti-establishment stance. After his landslide election win in 2001, businesses too warmed to him – largely due to his trademark “Thaksinomics” that ushered in an era of economic success.

The policies, which included loans and debt moratoriums for farmers as well as subsidized fuel prices, were aimed at rural Thais, who make up the majority of the country’s population – but they were anathema to the country’s rich elites. In 2006, accused of corruption, Thaksin was ousted in a military coup and, facing a potential prison sentence, went into self-imposed exile (though he returned to Thailand briefly in 2008, leaving again just before the court convicted him).

However, despite Thaksin’s physical absence, many see him as continuing to influence the Pheu Thai party – firstly through his sister, Yingluck, who became the country’s first female prime minister in 2011, and now through Paetongtarn – a mother of one who is expecting her second child, a boy, at around the same time as the election is due.

Thaksin has endorsed his daughter’s political skills and said that she would make a good prime minister, but has played down suggestions that he still pulls the strings.

“I have seen her dedicate herself to the party… and she has done a good job even though she is pregnant,” he said of his daughter in March.

“Now that she is (older), she decides for herself… I don’t control her. She’s got her mother’s DNA and has (characteristics) I don’t have so if she does become prime minister, she would do better than me,” he added.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra speaks at Thammasat University on  March 17, 2023.

Thai media outlets covering Shinawatra’s campaign trail say she is banking on nostalgia and hoping to reignite the same kind of public fervor that swept her father and aunt to power.

And there are signs that approach is working. A pre-election opinion poll conducted with 2,000 participants by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) showed strong support for Paetongtarn.

She was the most popular choice for prime minister, the NIDA survey found, receiving “more than double the support” of her rivals – the incumbent PM Prayut and Pita Limjaroenrat from the progressive Forward Party.

“It’s surprising to see how fast Paetongtarn has come (into her own) and found traction with voters,” political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak said. “She’s younger and will appeal to the demographic of young voters,” he said.

However, while the Shinawatra brand continues to wield undoubted influence with voters, experts say there is a flip side to having a famous father.

Her aunt Yingluck’s experience offers a sobering reminder of the perils in taking up the Shinawatra mantle.

Yingluck, who became prime minister in 2011 after another Shinawatra landslide win, was plagued by sexist and misogynistic attacks and constantly accused by critics of being controlled by her brother. She was dismissed from office in 2014 after the Constitutional Court ruled she had abused her position by removing a military officer from a civil servant’s job. Prayut’s coup then took place and Yingluck followed Thaksin into self-imposed exile.

“Paetongtarn has attracted a great deal of popular support and media attention chiefly because she is the daughter of Thaksin… but it should also be pointed out that she has stopped talking about her dad during recent public appearances,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a visiting fellow and acting coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak research institute.

“Her hard work in spite of her pregnancy also draws a great deal of public admiration and sympathy,” he added. “But it is still uncertain whether the family is willing to risk her well-being for another Shinawatra prime minister.”

Paetongtarn Shinawatra (center) pictured with her father Thaksin (right), mother and siblings on graduation day in 2008.

Others question whether after all these years the family name will be enough to propel her to victory.

Political scientist and author Aim Sinpeng, a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, described Paetongtarn as “a celebrity in some ways,” but questioned whether that would be enough.

“Her family is famous, her dad is one of the most popular PMs in Thai history and there’s a level of adoration – she can count on Thaksin’s strong and loyal supporter base to help her stand out, but I don’t know if this would be enough – youths in Thailand are pretty divided and have been on a much more progressive side than what her Pheu Thai party has offered,” Sinpeng told CNN.

“She trends on social media but isn’t amassing as much support as we would expect from a young and famous new politician,” she added.

And it’s far from clear whether Paetongtarn will even be her party’s first pick as prime ministerial candidate, with some party insiders suggesting Srettha’s challenge is picking up momentum.

Still, Paetongtarn’s pregnancy may help her come into her own.

While campaign staff from the Pheu Thai party told CNN that Paetongtarn “would not appear much at upcoming election rallies” given her pregnancy, she has insisted she is “100% ready” for the battle ahead.

“She will not draw negative reactions for being a young mother in office – she will draw praise,” said Sinpeng. “Thai society understands that women need a lot of help to raise children (and) she has been very up front about her gender focused issues and pushing boundaries of what women can do in Thai society today.”

“Thai politics can get really down and dirty especially for women,” said Pongsudhirak from Chulalongkorn University, noting the experience of Yingluck and saying the younger Shinawatra could face similar attacks aimed at discrediting her.

However, said Pongsudhirak, “It is a different political environment in Thailand now and hopefully it will be different for Paetongtarn because in many ways, her entering the election is vindication for the family – Thaksin’s daughter leading the party in the face of their enemies.”

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