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Judgment day looms for Thai ex-PM Yingluck and Shinawatra clan

Yingluck Shinawatra’s star power and knack for public relations sets her apart from the military regime currently in power © AFP / LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA

Bangkok, Thailand, Aug 23 – Clobbered by coups and courts, Thailand’s Shinawatra political dynasty is bracing for another withering blow in its decade-long power struggle with the kingdom’s establishment as judges decide whether to convict the clan’s ex-premier Yingluck.

The Supreme Court will on Friday rule if Yingluck is guilty of criminal negligence over a rice subsidy that showered cash on her family’s rural political heartland, but was riddled with graft and led to billions of dollars of losses.

If convicted, Thailand’s first female prime minister could be jailed for up to 10 years — although a sentence may be suspended. She is also eligible for bail pending appeal.

The Shinawatras emerged as a political force in 2001 when billionaire family patriarch, Thaksin, swept to power. He energised the economy and provided the most extensive pro-poor welfare schemes in Thai history.

But critics accused him of abusing power and blurring the lines between business and politics, becoming as loathed by the Bangkok royalist elite as he was cherished by the rural poor.

A coup toppled him in 2006 and the Shinawatras’ political fortunes have see-sawed since.

Paralysing protests and court cases have hacked at their governments and finances, while another coup toppled his younger sister Yingluck in 2014.

Former Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra © AFP / Gal ROMA

A guilty verdict for Yingluck on Friday would trigger a life ban from politics, taking out a key family member whose star power and adroit public relations stands apart from the dour elderly generals who currently rule Thailand.

She has pleaded innocent to the charges, saying she is the victim of a “subtle political game”.

But her enemies say a conviction would be just desserts for a dynasty accused of seeding the kingdom with graft and nepotism.

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“The Shinawatra family downfall is attributable to what they have done in the past,” Akanat Promphan, a key figure in the anti-Yingluck protests that resulted in the last army takeover, told AFP this week.

“Hopefully the verdict will give an expensive lesson to future governments not to use government policy for narrow populist gain.”

– ‘Money and power’ –

While Yingluck faces judges on Friday, it is Thaksin the clan’s rivals really want behind bars.

The former cop from northern Thailand, who made a fortune in telecoms and once owned Manchester City football club, became the country’s first elected premier to complete a full term. He was re-elected in 2005.

But success stirred the ire of the conservative Thai elite and their army allies who feared their monopoly on power was threatened.

The Shinawatras are revered by the rural poor but hated by Bangkok’s royalist elite © AFP/File / PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL

After he was bundled from office he was hit with a graft conviction and now lives in self-exile to avoid jail. Courts also seized some $1.3 billion of his assets.

After several years of political deadlock and competing protests — including deadly clashes and the occupation of Bangkok’s main airports by anti-Shinawatra “yellow shirts” — Yingluck emerged as an unlikely successor, cruising to an election win in 2011.

A political novice, she charmed her party’s base with the rice subsidy, paying farmers up to twice the market rate for their crop.

But the policy failed and galvanised mass protests against her government and the ensuing bloodshed presaged another military coup.

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A civil court order is also seeking $1 billion from her in damages for the scheme.

While the walls are fast closing in, the Shinawatra clan has one last ace up its sleeve, says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat and an academic at Kyoto University.

“There’s no other credible political alternative… they (the Shinawatras) are still number one” when it comes to popularity, he said.

There is also the question of “money and power” with billions of dollars of family money in play.

“No politician in the world would walk away from that easily.”

– End game or new beginning? –

Since the 2014 coup the junta has made good on its vow to recast the kingdom’s politics — without the Shinawatras.

Loyalists have been sacked or transferred from provincial government and key police positions.

Outspoken figures from the Shinawatras’ Pheu Thai party have been knotted up in legal cases, while the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” street movement has been muzzled.

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A junta-written constitution cramps the power of future civilian government, neutralising Shinawatra vote banks in the north and northeast ahead of fresh elections trailed for late next year.

Meanwhile the military’s reform strategy cements Thailand’s policy path in law for the next 20 years.

Yingluck’s star power and adroit public relations skills set her apart apart from the dour generals who currently rule Thailand © AFP/File / NICOLAS ASFOURI

Critics say that will hobble society and the economy just as global conditions demand greater agility.

Uncertainty pervades the kingdom, with power players on all sides closely watching for signals of support from the new monarch Maha Vajiralongkorn.

“We have already lost a decade to this tug-of-war,” said Chaturon Chaisang who served as a cabinet minister in both Thaksin and Yingluck’s governments.

“We will probably lose another one.”

Without the siblings, the Shinawatras’ political ambitions appear bleak.

Although they have other potential proxies, they may have to step back from a party they founded, Chaturon added.

“According to the new rules of the game it is somewhat inevitable that the relationship and role of the family and party can never be the same,” he said.

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