Two weeks ago, she was giving birth. On Sunday, she’ll run for prime minister

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Just two days after giving birth to her second child, Paetongtarn Shinawatra fronted a news conference in Bangkok hospital with her baby boy in an incubator.

“I believe that good things come with babies, so this is a blessing for my family,” she told reporters two weeks ago.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra, second from right, presents her newborn baby to media with her husband Pidok Sooksawas.Credit: AP

“My children are my secret power to work and to live life.”

The 36-year-old daughter of self-exiled former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra campaigned through her pregnancy ahead of an election that could hand her the south-east Asian nation’s leadership.

The new mother, known as “Ung Ing”, has been back at work ahead of Sunday’s high-stakes polls, when up to 52 million voters will cast their ballots.

One of three prime ministerial candidates for the survey-leading Pheu Thai Party, she is aiming to inspire a democratic reawakening after nine years of de facto military rule.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra studied political science and hotel management before overseeing the family’s chain of hotels and golf courses.Credit: AP

In her favour is her membership of Thailand’s most famous political clan. Her father Thaksin, the billionaire tycoon, and aunt Yingluck have both been prime ministers before being ousted in military coups. Her uncle Somchai Wongsawat also briefly held the post.

The Shinawatra star dust has rubbed off in popularity scores, as she led polling as preferred next prime minister for months – well ahead of current leader and former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha.

She is the face of her party’s attempt to wrest government from the former generals who have run the country since their last takeover in 2014.

While Paetongtarn is a political novice – she studied political science and hotel management before overseeing the family’s chain of hotels and golf courses – those who know her say she is bringing far more than her bloodline to the contest.

“She is young, there is no doubt about that, but she is driven,” said Umesh Pandey, a former editor of the Bangkok Post who is hoping to enter parliament also with Pheu Thai.

A photographer works under a screen showing Paetongtarn Shinawatra and her husband Pidok Sooksawas with her newborn son and daughter at a press conference.Credit: AP

“Five days before her delivery of her child, she was walking around stage, she had trouble breathing because she walked up a flight of stairs. And after speaking she was out of breath. This is the drive, this is the determination of this lady.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of international relations at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, also believes Paetongtarn is “the genuine article”.

“She has talent, passion, charisma [and] political instincts,” he said. “Thaksin has three children. She is the only one who has inherited his kind of political wherewithal. So on that basis she does have what it takes.”

Pita Limjaroenrat and Move Forward have closed the gap on Pheu Thai in polls for Sunday’s election.Credit: Getty Images

Paetongtarn and her party, founded by Thaksin, are not the only ones pitching up for change after years of stagnation in the region’s second-largest economy.

The youth-infused Move Forward party, led by 42-year-old Harvard alumnus Pita Limjaroenrat, has also impressed in pre-election polls, having emerged from the embers of the Future Forward party, which the Constitutional Court dissolved following a strong performance at the last election in 2019.

Its disbanding brought on student-led mass street protests in 2020 and 2021 against Prayut’s government that also challenged Thailand’s royal defamation or lese majeste law, which has been enforced since the most recent coup in unprecedented volumes with hundreds jailed for insulting the monarchy.

In a significant first, the progressive party Move Forward is running on a platform that includes reforming the notorious Section 112 of the criminal code, which rights groups say has been weaponised to silence dissent. It is also proposing to abolish the mandatory military draft.

The populist Pheu Thai won’t touch lese majeste, the most sensitive of issues in the kingdom, but it also wants to rein in the armed forces and lift conscription.

Amid projections of a landslide result for the two top opposition parties, the prospect of the conservative establishment having its wings clipped raises the possibility of familiar levers being pulled.

Former army chief and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha hopes to remain as prime minister.Credit: AP

The striking out of rivals is among them. “The last resort, the nuclear option, would be to have a military takeover again,” Thitinan said. “That would make it a third time since 2006, if that happens. But I think they are reluctant to go that route because it would be very costly. Imagine all the international scrutiny, maybe some sanctions, and potentially eliciting domestic protest in the streets.”

It is anything but a fait accompli that the military-backed and royalist parties that comprise the governing coalition will be sidelined in any case.

Paetongtarn Shinawatra gestures to supporters ahead of Sunday’s election.Credit: AP

There has been a splintering of the ruling camp with Prayut forming the new United Thai Nation Party, pitting him against his former Palang Pracharath party and its new leader, Deputy Prime Minister and fellow ex-army supremo Prawit Wongsuwon.

But the scales are tilted towards them thanks to the junta-era appointment of 250 senators who select the prime minister along with 500 elected MPs.

The consequence is the opposition parties could need to claim as many as 376 seats, not simply 251, to achieve a majority, and that Prayut or Prawit could be chosen as prime minister in a minority government with the endorsement of the military-aligned senators even if they are thrashed.

Another key player in the equation may be Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, whose Bhumjaithai Party was behind the controversial decriminalisation of cannabis last year.

The uncertain landscape means post-election horse-trading will almost certainly determine the shape of the government, whether it’s another conservative alliance, a democratic-leaning bloc or even a combination of political adversaries, with speculation Pheu Thai could entertain a deal with Prawit and Palang Pracharath.

The potential return of Thaksin to the country after 15 years in self-imposed exile shapes as another lightning rod.

The 73-year-old has expressed a desire to return before his birthday in July from Dubai, where he has mostly lived since 2008, even if he has to go to prison. He faces 10 years behind bars after being convicted in absentia on corruption and abuse of power charges.

Thaksin Shinawatra has lived in exile since 2008 but wants to return to Thailand to see his family.Credit: AP

While he maintains he wants to simply spend time with his grandchildren, not dabble in politics, he remains a divisive figure.

“You can’t rule it out that there would be that sort of conservative backlash,” said Greg Raymond, a Thailand expert at the Australian National University.

“On the other hand, he’s getting old, he’s not as influential, and it’s pretty clear that the parties have moved on, even Pheu Thai to an extent.”

There have been suggestions that Thaksin could serve his sentence under house arrest, but that was rejected this week by Justice Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who insisted he must serve the time in jail.

Umesh, the editor turned aspiring MP, believes Thaksin finally coming back would be “the best thing for the country”. “It would help to reconcile the differences that we have had. He needs to be back,” he said.

The latest member of the family seeking top office, though, has left talk about Thaksin’s return to him.

“I am my dad’s daughter, always and forever, but I have my own decisions,” Paetongtarn said at a party rally.

As she presented her newborn son – Thaksin’s seventh grandchild – to media, bidding for a final surge of support before Sunday, she said: “Thailand cannot just hope for the best anymore”.

“Thailand needs change and only the Pheu Thai party is the best answer for the Thai people now.”

– with AP

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