Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was impeached Friday by a legislature appointed by the military junta that ousted her from her elected position in a coup d’etat in May of last year. She is now forbidden to participate in Thai politics for five years, and may face criminal charges. The development is the final step in neutering the political influence of the wildly popular Shinawatra family, a process years in the making and spearheaded by the often anti-democratic Thai elite. The impeachment sheds serious light on the wealthy establishment’s tight grip on the electoral process, but is likely to spark pushback from Shinawatra’s populist base.
Like her brother Thaksin Shinawatra before her, Yingluck Shinawatra’s popularity lay in policy initiatives that appealed to Thailand’s rural poor, including expanded healthcare availability and housing loans. The support of this long dormant base was highly effective, and won elections for the Shinawatras’ Pheu Thai party every year since 2001. But this populist approach – which at times appeared to be highly politically opportunistic – put Yingluck Shinawatra at odds with her country’s mostly urban elite, most notably with monarchy-aligned institutions like the military. It was in this context that street protests broke out in late 2013, and violence erupted between those demonstrating for and against Shinawatra’s leadership. The coup that ousted Shinawatra to quell the months of violence echoed the one that deposed her older brother Thaksin in 2006.
Today’s impeachment and potential criminal charges hinge on Shinawatra’s role in an ill-fated subsidy scheme for rural Thai rice farmers. (Nearly one quarter of the Thai population are farmers.) The Thai government allegedly lost $15 billion when its program of paying out twice the market rate for rice backfired after Indian exports subverted the Thai stockpile’s influence over the global market. Shinawatra’s opponents deemed the program to be an obvious ploy to buy votes, since it ostensibly enriched those who put her in office. (Several studies suggest that this connection was weaker than the military junta assumes – Pheu Thai party voters were more likely to vote based on healthcare legislation than “vote-buying” subsidies.)
Regardless of Shinawatra’s calculations, the military junta’s actions since the coup broadcast a clear message that civic power ought not to be in the hands of the rural poor. (Indeed, although democracy has been a tenuous feature of Thai society since 1932, twelve coups and several other attempts since makes it painfully clear that real power has always rested with the old political guard.) Since Yingluck Shinawatra’s deposal, the military junta has made swift moves to block any future Shinawatra-style populist legislation that could threaten the top-down structure favored by the elite. The ailing health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej may be further fueling the pro-establishment crackdown.
For now, the people’s response to the impeachment remains unclear. But after fourteen years of political agency, it seems unlikely that the Shinawatra rural base will forfeit their meager gains to the long-seated elite easily.