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Thailand's Shinawatra Bets on Family Name, Cash Handouts to 'Take Back Our Democracy'

Thai candidates for prime minister Chaikasem Nitisiri, left, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, center, and Srettha Thavisin, right, wave during a rally for Thailand's main opposition Pheu Thai party at the Thunder Dome Stadium north of Bangkok, April 5, 2023.
Thai candidates for prime minister Chaikasem Nitisiri, left, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, center, and Srettha Thavisin, right, wave during a rally for Thailand's main opposition Pheu Thai party at the Thunder Dome Stadium north of Bangkok, April 5, 2023.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra confirmed her bid for prime minister on Wednesday, pledging to increase daily wages and give a cash handout to all Thais if elected, as Thailand’s most famous political family fights a May 14 poll seen as critical if pro-democracy parties are to regain power from a military that has dug into politics.

Thailand’s modern history is strewn with coups — two of them aimed at Shinawatra prime ministers — violent street protests and elected governments that quickly crumble, in a struggle that is broadly between those who want greater democracy and an arch-royalist conservative elite.

Former army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, 69, has headed a military-backed government since leading a coup in 2014 against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Paetongtarn’s aunt.

Prayuth may need to rely on a minority government to return as prime minister after the polls, experts say, but he can draw on the support of an unelected 250-strong Senate that he handpicked.

But the 36-year-old Paetongtarn and her Pheu Thai opposition party are the biggest obstacle to his return.

“We’re going to help each other to take back our democracy, to take back our lives that have been drained from us for almost a decade,” she told a Bangkok stadium packed with supporters late Wednesday, referring to the years since Prayuth’s coup.

Drawing on name recognition

Paetongtarn is the daughter of self-exiled billionaire Thaksin, 73, who won the hearts of rural Thailand to become prime minister in elections in 2001 and then 2005, only to be thrown out by another coup a year later and convicted of corruption. He has not set foot in Thailand since 2008.

Paetongtarn, better known as Ung Ing, has been busy campaigning despite being eight months pregnant. Pheu Thai asserts a landslide victory is realistic if it gets around 310 seats from a 500-strong lower house and is drawing on the star power of the Shinawatra surname.

“We’ve won elections all this time, but our power has been stolen by coups and snakes in the parliament … we don’t want another coup,” she told the stadium to applause, noting only a landslide can ensure a political reset for Thailand.

Thousands cheered as Pheu Thai unveiled its candidates for prime minister: Paetongtarn, Chaikasem Nitisiri, an ex-justice minister, and Srettha Thavisin, who on Tuesday stepped down as chief executive of Sansiri, one of Thailand’s biggest real estate firms.

The party says it will raise the minimum wage to just under $18, from the current figure of around $10, ensure graduates start on minimum salaries of $735 a month, and give every Thai over the age of 16 around $300 in a "digital wallet” to spend in their local economy.

The party has not fully explained how it will fund its promises.

“Let me announce this to the world. Thailand will undergo a new transformation, we will re-enter the world stage, we will work to build a better future for Thais,” Srettha said. Many experts say he is likeliest to become Pheu Thai’s ultimate choice for prime minister if it secures a landslide.

Obstacles ahead, say observers

But experts warn obstacles are ahead for a Shinawatra family that is despised by many among the conservative elite who see Paetongtarn as a puppet for Thaksin.

In addition to military takeovers, that elite has frequently drawn on the support of the constitutional court to take out its rivals when polls turn unfavorable.

“I think the possibility of a party dissolution, before or after the election, to give advantage to a pro-military coalition cannot be ruled out,” said Napon Jatusripitak, a political scientist and researcher at The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof-Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Prayuth has faced major pro-democracy protests, as well as factions turning against him inside his political bloc. But he has battled his critics to contest the May election.

Yet under the constitution, written in the wake of the last coup, no Thai prime minister can be in office for more than 10 years. That leaves Prayuth with just two years left to serve if he abides by the constitution.

“Even two years could be valuable, because it means it's the continuity of the past eight years I’ve been in office,” he told reporters on Monday. “I know the ins and outs of all the problems.”

For many in a country that has seen periodic bursts of political violence, the return of Prayuth is unthinkable after years where freedoms have been curbed while the economy has sagged, leaving millions in poverty.

“Thaksin Shinawatra made people understand the meaning of democracy. Every policy came true, all designed for the people,” said Pisarn Janparn, a taxi driver and Pheu Thai supporter.

“People have put up so much already." he said. "If the establishment won’t yield to the people’s wishes, anything can happen. When people are hungry, anything can happen.”