Datelinewith Mark Davis comes live from Bangkok, on the day of Thailand’s first general election since deadly street riots crippled the capital.
It has been a tough few years in Thailand and for Bangkok in particular. Last year the city was crippled for months by violent protest and a brutally violent response by the government. The protesters were supporters of deposed and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They failed in bringing down the government then but they may succeed today. His younger sister, Yingluck took over leadership of his party in May and in lightening speed has turned herself into a contender. Over the last few days, I joined Yingluck as she hit the campaign trail.
REPORTER: Mark Davis
If the polls are correct, Thailand is about to elect its first female prime minister. Businesswoman and political novice Yingluck Shinawatra announced she was running for the top office in the land less than 2 months ago. A short run, but almost immediately showing that she had star power on the streets. She's got the crowds, she's got the media on her trail, and as the election finishes, it appears she may well have the numbers in parliament as well.
REPORTER: Are you feeling confident, only a few days to go?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: I think we are getting a very good response from the people. Hopefully, we can get them to vote in the election.
But Yingluck has some baggage too. She's the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra - exiled prime minister, convicted criminal and probably the most divisive figure in the past decade of Thai politics.
REPORTER: Do people like you because they like Thaksin?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: People like my brother and because I am his sister people will accept me easily but along the way if I don't be myself and I don't show how I will be the leader and run the party or if I am lucky and be in the government so I can run the country, so I must show my ability with the people.
Yingluck's Puea Thai Party knows its target audience well. In various party incarnations, its support base has always been small rural farmers and the urban poor. And its offers to them always outstrip the other parties with more middle class appeal.
SPEAKER (Translation): In the past, your aged pension was 500 baht per month, right? But if our party becomes the government, at 60 years old, you will get 600. At 70, you will get 700. At 80, you will get 800. If you are 90, you will get a whole thousand. Whoever lives till 120 years, they will get 5000. A big round of applause to the first female PM in waiting in Thai history - give her a big cheer!
Yingluck may bridle at the suggestion that she is just a front for her exiled brother but the party's slogan "Thaksin thinks. Yingluck acts", doesn't help to prevent that impression - nor does her standard greeting to the crowd.
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA (Translation): Bothers and sisters, I am here to tell you today, that I am the youngest sister of our PM Thaksin Shinawatra. I would like to know; do you miss our PM Thaksin?
CROWD (Translation): Yes we do!
REPORTER: Is there a danger that you're too close to him? Will the people of Thailand be getting Yingluck as a leader or will they be getting your brother as the leader of the country?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: Okay. The fact is I am his sister so I can use the benefit as the sister, and the logical system and management and his vision from him. So we'll get the good things from this but for me, I will be myself to make the decisions.
REPORTER: I mean, there is this slogan, "Thaksin thinks and Yingluck acts", what does that mean?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: It means that Thaksin also has good idea and has done some good things for the country so why not take his ideas and use his ideas from the past to give us the information but finally the decision will be my own way, on my shoulders - my leadership.
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA (Translation): I want to tell you that your voice touched his heart and he is missing you all very much.
Until deposed in a coup in 2006, Thaksin Shinawatar led a government that undeniably helped the poor get a little richer and himself and his family massively so. He was seen to be against the elites which in Thailand can also mean, dangerously, to be against the royal family. Convicted of corruption, sentenced to 2 years gaol, he is now in exile and more than a billion dollars poorer when some of his assets were seized.
REPORTER: But the government maintains that your real intention is to pave the way for your brother to return and to return your family assets, $1.5 billion, that that's your intent.
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: I think we already have the statement, and we do not intend and we do not have the policy to clear my brother's case or clear his assets.
REPORTER: You're saying your policy is not to give an amnesty but is that a pledge that you will not give an amnesty to Thaksin?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: I will say that amnesty will be a technique but the objective is how we can make Thailand move forward. How we can help unite Thailand. The way to handle this is we believe in reconciliation;.
REPORTER: Include in your brother for all parties?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: We will include all parties;..
There'll need to be will be a lot of issues reconciled before large sections of the population peacefully accept the return of Yingluck's brother. Last year, Bangkok was overrun with pro Thaksin demonstrators known as the Red Shirts, including armed militiamen. Thaksin was accused of being able to turn their actions on and off like a tap. An accusation he denies. The heart of Bangkok was set ablaze by gangs and 91 demonstrators were killed when the military crackdown came.
Nattawut Saikua was one of the red shirt leaders and is now Yingluck's regular warm up speaker, valued for his feisty style.
NATTAWUT SAIKUA (Translation): So in the final round we won't need to throw any punches. Just stay guarded, then a little jab. Jab, and then we kick them in the face. Keep jabbing. And victory will be ours.
But some of his past speeches are coming back to haunt him, like this one last year before Bangkok was set alight.
NATTAWUT SAIKUA (Translation): If they seize power, we'll burn the whole country down.
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: I do not support anything that is against the law - any people against the law or against the monarchy, and so we have to handle with the legal process.
REPORTER: Well it seems you are happy to be associated with some people that go against the law - for one, your brother went against the law, but at your rallies, the red shirt leader - Nattawut - he makes all the speeches before you come on stage. This is a man who called on the crowd to burn down Bangkok. Should you be standing next to him?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: As long as people are fighting for the just, you cannot say who did wrong. That is one single word and you cannot say people do wrong, right! You need evidence. I never support the violence and anything that hurt the country.
Reconciliation may lie ahead, but for now, more prosiac politics are at play, and Yingluck is proving remarkably adept at playing them.
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA (Translation): Our party will bring back the rice mortgage system. How about 15,000 baht a tonne for paddy rice? And 20,000 baht a tonne for jasmine rice? Are you interested in credit cards especially for farmers?
It hasn't been a good campaign for serving prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva but he begs to differ. Possibly even more so than Yingluck has, Abhisit has turned this campaign into a virtual referendum on Thaksin Shinawatar.
ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA (Translation): We have solved many problems, we have started many policies that benefited you, the people.
He asks rhetorically whether Thailand really wants a billionaire criminal to return. A man accused of crippling the nation with violent protests to advance his own interests. He seems a little stunned that the answer from many Thais seems to be - yes.
REPORTER: It's been a pretty cool reception on the street, how does that feel?
ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: No. It's been very warm.
REPORTER: During your campaign speeches, you don't talk much about Yingluck at all, only Thaksin, why is that?
ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Because he is running a campaign, Thaksin thinks that they are there to carry out his thoughts.
REPORTER: Members of your party have called members of her party, terrorists trying to get into parliament - do you think that is fair?
ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Because they have been charged with terrorism and they have been actively involved in violence in the last couple of years.
All of that may be true, but it seems Thaksin and now his sister, still have appeal.
REPORTER: Throughout the campaign it is becoming apparent that Thaksin still has a lot of popularity amongst the poor as does Yingluck, it seems a little bit ironic I guess - they are both billionaires, why do they pull support?
ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: They like some of the policies that he initiated. We have carried on some of those policies - we have a lot of policies that the poor also like;;Farmer income guarantee, free education and senior pension. We are now making a difference and a distinction between Thaksin the Prime Minister and Thaksin the man.
The prime minister gave them a lot of good policies but they have been carried on and we have got new policies that help the poor people but Thaksin the man has been engaged in causing instability here.
REPORTER: And if they do win, what does that mean for Thailand?
ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA: Well, I am concerned about the instability it might cause. They will be thinking about Amnesty, a white washing, all very controversial and the Thai people in the country will lose a golden opportunity to build on the recovery that we have engineered.
Whatever the political outcome this weekend, there is a strong mood that it all may be moot if the military and conservative interests don't approve. A point not lost on Yingluck even as she announces her party's sports policy.
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA (Translation): Most importantly, sports helps people to learn to respect the rules, learning how to win, lose and forgive. This is the benefit of sports.
They are also noble values in politics - not always followed in Thailand, where courts or tanks regularly overturn election results.
REPORTER: The military deposed your brother, I imagine they are not impressed to see his movement, his party, his sister come back into power. Are you concerned about what the military are thinking about your party at the moment and the prospect of you forming government?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: I think General Prayuth Chanocha has already announced that he will be neutral and he will be supporting us to see the respect of the people for the elections. I will trust him as a gentleman.
REPORTER: Do you have confidence in the Army? It is hard to believe in the gentlemanliness?
YINGLUCK SHINAWTRA: I think Thailand has been backwards for five years, people are suffering after the coup happened so I don't think they can do it again - that's the first reason. Secondly, we need all internationals to help Thailand. To help to install democracy back.
The coming hours may see whether Thailand elects its first female prime minister. If so, the real test may be whether she survives the coming weeks. If helped into power by her brother, she'll now inherit all his enemies too.
MARK DAVIS: I am joined here by a one of Thailand's leading political analysts and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies in Bangkok, Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak. Thanks for joining us Thitinan, what is the latest results? I know it is early days but what is the trend?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Exit polls have suggested that Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra is on course to win a landslide - certainly a convincing victory. We can sat at a minimum at this time, without confirmation of final results, is that Puea Thai party is likely to win this election and that in itself, regardless of the margin, is extraordinary. This party has been dissolved twice. Its leading politicians have been banned twice. It is led by a deposed former Prime Minister in exile. It has not been in power for the last 2.5 years. It has gone through protest, violence, turmoil and so on and it is still going to win this election. So it is really something for us in Thailand.
MARK DAVIS: And a political novice at the head in Yingluck and she has done very well in a month and a half?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Yingluck is a novice but she is not naive. She knows what she is doing and I think it was a brilliant move by a Thaksin to select her because he has her complete confidence, he can trust her. At the same time, she has grown into the role more than most people anticipated. She is untainted by the past. She is also a female, she is young.
MARK DAVIS: She is untainted by the past but she is tainted by her brother?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Her brother is tainted but she herself - individually, has not been hounded by corrupt allegations and so on. There are perjury allegations against her, but you know, she is an unknown quantity. There is something about that novelty that works for her.
MARK DAVIS: The person that seemed to be at the centre of this campaign was a man that was not even running. It was Thaksin Shinawatar. The government almost made this a referendum on whether he should return, was that a mistake because they have a result that they probably did not expect?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: Tactically, in the end, it was a mistake for the Democrate Government to make this a 'for or against Thaksin' because many people still have been captivated by the policies, the Thaksin years and so on. But this vote - I want to convey to your audiences, is a multi-dimensional vote. The verdict should be seen as a multi-faceted decision by the Thai electorate.
On the one hand, yes it is about Thaksin - this time it is a vote about rejecting something. It is not a vote for embracing something. You vote for the Democrat Party, you reject Thaksin and all that he has done for Thailand. You vote for Puea Thai, you want Thaksin to maybe return and you like his policies from the Thaksin years, from 2001 to 2006. And at the same time, this vote at the end of the day is a protest vote. I think many people who vote for Purr Thai party are not enamoured with Thaksin but they reject and oppose the interventions and distortions of Thai democracy we have seen since the military coup in September 2006.
MARK DAVIS: They must object to the coup? Has everyone underestimated the popularity of Thaksin himself?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: He has been resilient and I the problem that we have in Thailand is our existential dilemma. On the one hand he has awakened voices which have been marginalised, who had not a fair share in society, they were neglected and he came in scientifically with an approach to cater to the demands, expectations and addressed grievances and he won elections time and time again in this century.
He has made this all about him. His voters, his voices is about him at the same time his opponents failed to recognise and accommodate his voices and that is why they keep saying it is all about Thaksin, these voters really don't exist, they are manipulated, they are uneducated, they are uninformed and so on. Somewhere in between, we must find a compromise to overcome the Thaksin legacy and to try to make these voices count as a basis for moving forward.
MARK DAVIS: I am sure Thaksin will be as happy as Yingluck is tonight. Do you think Yingluck can now legitimately claim that she have a mandate to allow Thaksin back and to give him back his money, the government made him the issue and she has won on that issue, does she have a mandate?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: If the Puea Thai party wins by a large margin if not a landslide, certainly if Puea Thai takes power, she has a mandate. In Thailand, we have been stuck in this crisis for five years now and we must find a way to allow election winners to govern without abuse. The abuse would arrive by the form of Thaksin's return and the return of his assets and so on. So compromise must encompass these details whereby Thaksin should stay away for a while and there must be more continuity than change. His opponents need to make some concessions.
MARK DAVIS: What will Yingluck be facing though, will she be facing opposition immediately from the military or the yellow shirts. If she were to win, what Opposition will she be facing?
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: If she were to take office, we have seen this before in December 2007, when the last predecessor of Puea Thai party won the election in December 2007 - 2008, they could not govern. If she comes again, she has to allay the fears of Thaksin enemies. She must be given some autonomy and space. If Thaksin was smart, he would allow his sister some space.
MARK DAVIS: Well apparently he just said in a telephone interview, that he would like to come back for his daughter's wedding in November.
DR THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: That is a bad sing for us.
MARK DAVIS: Could be a bad sign for Thailand. Thanks Thitinan. For more background on the tensions in Thai politics go to our website.
Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN
3rd July 2011