paetongtarn shinawatra the new heir of thailands controversial political dynasty - Paetongtarn Shinawatra: the new heir of Thailand’s controversial political dynasty

After seven years out of government, the Shinawatra family appears to be keen on making a comeback.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of former prime minister Thaksin, made a surprise appearance at the opposition Pheu Thai Party’s general meeting in the northeastern Khon Kaen province on Thursday (Oct 28).

Introduced by outgoing party leader Sompong Amornwiwat, the 35-year-old spoke briefly to announce her appointment as the party’s chief adviser on participation and innovation.

Analysts view Paetongtarn as a potential Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidate – a possibility she neither denied nor confirmed. Asked by the media to comment on whether she would take the role, she responded: “That’s a matter for the future. I am focusing on my current duties.”

At 35, Paetongtarn has reached the Constitution’s minimum age requirement to be a government minister.

It is no secret that Thaksin, his former wife Khunying Potjaman Na Pombejra, and other members of his family have retained strong influence over the former ruling party, though they hold neither membership nor executive posts.

However, the fact of Thaksin’s influence is often denied by Pheu Thai heavyweights, including Chonlanan Srikaew, who has just replaced Sompong as party leader. He told Thai PBS that he only became aware of his “selection” as leader shortly before the general meeting, when an unnamed senior party figure approached to offer him the job.

Pheu Thai patriarch Thaksin was deposed by a coup in 2006 and has lived in self-exile overseas since 2008, escaping prison sentences passed in absentia for abuse of power and corruption during his rule.

What the appointment means

Paetongtarn’s appointment – albeit to a non-executive post – signals the Shinawatras’ intention to regain political power by first reclaiming official control of Pheu Thai, analysts say.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University’s Political Science Faculty, sees the move as the Shinawatra family reclaiming “ownership” over the party.

“It shows that Pheu Thai still belongs to the Shinawatra dynasty. It’s not a political institution that belongs to the people,” he said.

The analyst added that in order to become a genuine social institution, the party must break from Thaksin and his family.

He was unsurprised by Paetongtarn’s appointment, saying that such practices were typical of Thai political dynasties.

Desire to return home

Recent media reports claimed Thaksin and Potjaman do not want their family members to enter politics for fear that they may end up like Thaksin and his younger sister Yingluck – but observers say the stakes are high for the wealthy and powerful family.

Yingluck served as prime minister before the 2014 military coup and fled Thailand in 2017. She was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison for negligence in her government’s corruption-plagued rice-pledging scheme.

“It’s inconceivable that Thaksin would withdraw from Thailand’s affairs completely. His family still has a big stake and businesses in the Kingdom,” explained Titipol.

He added that his daughter’s new party role signaled Thaksin was still hoping to return to Thailand in the future.

Thaksin frequently engages with Pheu Thai supporters online under his social media alias, “Tony Woodsome”. He mentioned his desire to “return home” during a recent Clubhouse talk with members of the CARE group, a Pheu Thai think-tank. He even sang a recently released song that asks his supporters to vote for Pheu Thai in the next election if they want him to “come back to our home”.

Paetongtarn reiterated her father’s wish to return to Thailand during her party speech in Khon Kaen.

“He has never forgotten the debt of gratitude he owes to Thailand. He has never forgotten Thai people. His strong desire is to return to Thailand and pay back the debt of gratitude he owes to its people,” she said.

Paetongtarn and her brother Panthongtae often use social media to defend their father and the family against criticism.

Connecting with young voters

Pheu Thai is apparently hoping that Thaksin’s youngest daughter can connect with the young generation and win back youth voters lost to the opposition’s second-largest party, Move Forward.

That task will not be easy, however, according to Titipol. He pointed out that both Pheu Thai and the coalition Democrat Party introduced youth wings in the run-up to the 2019 election, but still failed to attract as many young voters as Move Forward’s former incarnation, the now-disbanded Future Forward Party.

“I doubt Paetongtarn will be able to mobilize support from young voters or reconnect with them,” said Titipol, explaining that Pheu Thai had not addressed the demands of youngsters who want structural reform of the country, including the monarchy.

Since last year, the student-led protest movement has been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a more democratic Constitution, and reform of the monarchy.

Possible PM candidate?

While other major or middle-size parties have already unveiled their prime ministerial candidates for the next election, Pheu Thai is keeping the public guessing, delaying its nomination to as close to the national vote as possible.

Pheu Thai’s secretary-general Prasert Jantararuangtong, who managed to retain his seat on the new executive board, told the Khon Kaen meeting that the party would adopt three PMcandidates who “can connect with older and younger generations alike”.

Thaksin said recently that Thailand’s next prime minister must be someone of working age who has a good understanding of modern-day technologies. He said the PM’s seat should go to someone from Gen X, not baby boomers.

For observers like Titipol, Paetongtarn’s new advisory role is a stepping-stone to an executive post in the party – and perhaps PM candidacy. Pheu Thai was just testing the water and the public sentiment, he said of her appointment.

“We cannot rule out the possibility [of PM candidacy] if she receives strong backing from party supporters.”

The analyst added that her young age and lack of political experience were not a problem, since in reality, her father is the one in control.

“She can be a surrogate for her father,” he said.

Academic scandal brewing?

Nicknamed “Ung-ing” by her family, Paetongtarn was born in the United States on August 21, 1986. She is married to commercial airline pilot Pidok Sooksawas, and the couple has one child.

Paetongtarn is worth more than Bt4.3 billion thanks to her status as the largest shareholder of property developer SC Asset Corporation, which is listed on the Thai stock exchange.

She graduated from Chulalongkorn University (CU)’s Political Science Faculty and then studied international hotel management at the University of Surrey in England.

However, suspicion was raised over her exam scores in 2004, while Thaksin was serving as prime minister.

Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a lecturer at Paetongtarn’s former CU faculty, wrote on Facebook on Friday (Oct 29) that she achieved “miraculously high scores” in her second tests for the national university entrance exam in 2004.

Paetongtarn’s score in her math tests soared from 27 on her first attempt to 63 on her second attempt, while she made similar improvements of 20 points for English and Thai, and 26 points for sociology, according to the academic.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk