Sibling rivalry

After five years sitting on the sidelines of Thai politics, Yaowapa Wongsawat could soon find herself appointed Thailand's next prime minister

Sacha Passi
May 6, 2013

After five years sitting on the sidelines of Thai politics, Yaowapa Wongsawat could soon find herself appointed Thailand’s next prime minister

By Sacha Passi
Her elder brother is Thailand’s former Prime Minister and most famous fugitive; her younger sister made history when she became the country’s first female Prime Minister, despite never before having held a government post. In Thailand the Shinawatra name is synonymous with power, money and controversy, and the middle child of the sibling threesome is no exception. Yaowapa Wongsawat may not be the most prominent member of the dynasty, but she wields a political force that could see her easily slide into the role of Thailand’s next Prime Minister, if a replacement is deemed necessary.

Sibling rivalry
Illustration: Victor Blanco for SEA Globe
At 58 years old, Yaowapa is known in Thailand as a prominent businesswoman and a guiding force behind the government. Despite a five-year political ban, her administrative authority was reinforced when her husband, Somchai Wongsawat, took over as prime minister in 2008, making her Thailand’s first lady. Speculation that Yaowapa could become a replacement for Yingluck surfaced in March following the resignation of Chiang Mai MP Kasem Nimmolrat. He cited health reasons, but speculation suggested it was to make way for Yaowapa to become a member of parliament, which, under the Thai Constitution, is required of the prime minister.

“Considering the unsettling political situation in Thailand, it is pragmatic for the Puea Thai Party (PTP) to seek a ‘back-up’ prime minister,” said Pongphisoot Busbarat, a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian National University, and a former staff member of Thailand’s National Security Council. “If we look at Thai politics since the 2006 coup, we can see that Thaksin (Shinawatra) and his allies have learnt an important lesson – that their rivals will [try anything] to stop them being in power.”
Talks of a reserve prime minister have been tossed into the rumour mill after Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was involved in a string of recent controversies, which could see her disqualified from her post. There are currently several pending judicial cases against Yingluck, including Thailand’s rice pledging corruption case. More recently, she has become the target of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for alleged asset concealment, following claims that she failed to disclose a THB30 million loan ($1.02m) to a company run by her husband, Anusorn Amornchat, in 2006.
“If Yingluck is unseated, Yaowapa could fill the prime ministerial slot with ease,” said Paul Chambers, director of research for the Southeast Asian Institute of Global Studies at Payap University, Thailand. “She has much political experience and has a proven loyalty for Thaksin… ultimately in Thai politics today, Yaowapa Wongsawat exerts incredible clout.”
Despite her relatively low profile compared to her siblings, Yaowapa is no political novice. In 2001 she was elected as an MP in Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party. At the same time she became the leader of Wang Bua Baan, a powerful faction of the TRT grouped in northern Thailand. During this period, Yaowapa became known as Thaksin’s ‘right-hand woman’, said Chambers. “In this capacity, Yaowapa, in many ways, became his surrogate strongman in the Lower House of Thailand’s parliament until Thaksin’s ousting by the military in 2006,” he added.
Since 2007, Yaowapa has been forced to wield her political influence out of the spotlight, after the TRT was dissolved by court order and the then party executive was banned from politics for five years, along with 110 other former party members.
It is now one year since the ban ended in May 2012, and it is anticipated that Yaowapa will, at the very least, step back into a position as an MP to help the government’s waning position within the House. In particular she could gain support for contentious policies such as the THB2 trillion ($68 billion) borrowing bill that, if passed, would fund the costliest infrastructure investment in Thai history. “The coming of Yaowapa is timely… Recent parliamentary voting saw many MPs from the PTP absent, which affected the vote margin on important issues,” said Busbarat. “Putting aside the possibility of Yaowapa becoming the new Prime Minister, her parliamentary status itself will definitely allow her to enforce the party’s discipline in the legislature.”
While Yingluck has proven to be an affable and diplomatic leader, Yaowapa is known to have the ability and intelligence to get the job done. Just how high Yaowapa rises will depend on Yingluck’s performance in the coming months, said Chambers, adding that the hand holding the true power in Thai politics is doing so from afar.
“Interestingly, Yingluck has displayed a growing independent streak from her brother, and that could be another reason why Thaksin is propping Yaowapa up as an alternative prime minister,” Chambers said. “In other words, if Yingluck does not shape up and do Thaksin’s bidding, then he may ship her out.”
Also view

“Lady in waiting: Nural Izzah Anwar”
“Divide and rule: Min Aung Hlaing”
“Rebel with a cause: Mari Pangestu”
“Rules of the game: Nguyen Ba Thanh”
“Members only: Roberto Soares”
“The going is good: Cesar Purisima”
“The heir apparent: Le Luong Minh”

Read more articles