Thailand is set to have its first female prime minister in Yingluck Shinawatra, younger sister of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Her victory as leader of the opposition Pheu Thai party has raised hopes that women can play a larger role in the country’s male-dominated politics. But many question if she can emerge from her brother’s shadow, let alone challenge Thai society’s cultural and social barriers for women.
Yingluck Shinawatra emerged victorious in one of the most high-stakes elections in Thailand’s recent history.
Her Pheu Thai party won a comfortable majority in a rebuke to Thailand’s traditional elite, who backed the ruling Democrat party of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The 44-year-old businesswoman is now preparing to hold her first political office as Thailand’s first female prime minister.
She says Thailand, after years of political turmoil and sporadic street violence, can benefit from having a woman in charge.
"I think I can use as the female to talk with everyone to make the country… move forward by the peaceful strategy," she said.
But Yingluck’s critics say she is just a proxy for her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive leader who was in 2006 ousted by the military.
The coup led to a years-long power struggle between Bangkok’s traditional rulers and Thaksin’s supporters, whose protests virtually shut-down central Bangkok, last year.
Armed elements among the protesters fought street battles with soldiers sent to end their demonstration.
More than 90 people were killed, most of them civilians.
In response to the violence, more than 60 women’s organizations teamed up to form the Women Network Reshaping Thailand to push for more involvement by women in politics. In recent years women have comprised just about 15 percent of the country’s elected leaders.
Coordinator Sutada Mekrungruengkul compares Thailand’s current divisions to two boys fighting in a schoolyard.
"Our feeling, our solution, our suggestion is to talk or to sit down and talk. Maybe we don’t need to fight. We don’t need to grab the authority and get rid of another person," said Sutada.
Thai businesses are already a world leader in hiring women executives. A recent survey reported about 30 percent of companies are led by female CEOs.
But women still lag in politics.
Despite Yingluck’s high-profile candidacy, all major parties in the election, including her own, largely ignored constitutional guidelines calling for proportional representation of female candidates.
Women made up 16 percent of Pheu Thai’s nominated candidates while the ruling Democrats included 11 percent, with most at the bottom of the list.
At a pre-election conference for female top party list candidates, only a few women were represented and none seemed interested in discussing the lack of support for women in politics.
Sutada says too many women candidates quickly learn political rhetoric just to get elected and have little interest in pushing parties to put forward more female candidates.
“This is from the culture I think. By law you have to comply but by nature or by culture you ignore. Automatically ignore,” said Sutada.
Sutada says it is too early to tell what Yingluck’s rise will mean for women’s role in politics or the effort to reconcile Thailand’s bitter political divisions.
The Pheu Thai party is contemplating granting amnesty for political activists and banned politicians. Yingluck is also considering pardoning her brother, who has lived in exile since 2008 to avoid a jail term for corruption.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s return could spark another round of unrest in Thailand, but Yingluck says his return is not a priority right now.
“I would like to say that amnesty just only like the technique, one technique, of the reconciliation process," she said. "But, we don’t aim for the amnesty at this time. We aim that how we can move Thailand, how we can make Thailand move forward, how we can help Thailand to be the unity as one.”
As Yingluck prepares to take office in the coming weeks, all of Thailand will be waiting to see whether her untested political skills can overcome the country’s deep divisions - or if she can change broader political attitudes among both men and women.