Thaksin 'clone' set to be Thai PM

BANGKOK, July 3, 2011 (AFP) - Yingluck Shinawatra, who is set to be Thailand's first female prime minister, is a political novice whose biggest asset is also her most controversial -- her family name.

AFP - Yingluck Shinawatra waves to the crowd as she arrives at her party headquarters in Bangkok on July 3, 2011.

She is widely seen as a stand-in for her older brother, the fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who describes Yingluck as his "clone" and who has already called to congratulate her on an apparent landslide election victory.

According to exit polls, Yingluck has led Thaksin's Puea Thai Party to a landslide win, with a thumping majority of up to 313 seats out of 500 against just 152 for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's ruling Democrats.

The photogenic 44-year-old businesswoman has run a polished campaign, defying sceptics who said the initial excitement over her nomination as the main opposition candidate for prime minister would soon fizzle out.

A smiling Yingluck arrived at Puea Thai headquarters Sunday afternoon, clad in bright purple, to be mobbed by jubilant supporters and the media, but cautioned she wanted to wait for the official results before claiming victory.

"Thank you to the people who came out to vote," she told supporters.

With her groomed appearance, relaxed demeanour and carefully choreographed stage routines, Yingluck -- 18 years junior to her controversial big brother -- proved a hit on the campaign trail.

"There's no question she's getting a bounce from excitement over the idea of Thailand having a woman prime minister, the novelty of a fairly young, attractive candidate, and because the Democrats are running such a lacklustre campaign," said Thailand expert Michael Montesano.

And on top of that is her name -- a big plus in the eyes of Thaksin's fans but a turnoff for supporters of the establishment.

"She could have been a potted plant and that would have been true," said Montesano, of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Yingluck told AFP while campaigning that she and her brother were similar in their approach.

"We are alike in the sense that I have learned from him in business and I understand his vision, how he solves problems and the way he built everything from the beginning," she said.

Thaksin remains a hugely divisive figure in Thailand. He was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled the country in 2008 before a court sentenced him in his absence to two years in prison for corruption.

He is still adored by many rural and working class voters for his populist policies while in power, but is reviled by the ruling elite who see him as corrupt and a threat to the revered monarchy.

Yingluck herself, however, is seen as a fresh face largely untainted by scandal. Accusations by her political foes that she lied in court to protect her brother appear to have had little impact on her popularity.

In contrast to British-born premier Abhisit who is criticised for lacking the common touch, she has refrained from negative campaigning, instead focusing on her policies and stressing the need for reconciliation after years of unrest.

"She's able to look natural in front of big crowds in a way that the prime minister just cannot, no matter what he does," said Montesano.

Yingluck was born on June 21, 1967, into one of the most prominent ethnic Chinese families in northern Chiang Mai province, the youngest of nine siblings.

Until recently president of Thai real estate firm SC Asset Corp, she graduated in political science from Chiang Mai University and earned a masters degree in public administration at Kentucky State University in the United States.

She returned to Thailand to work for one of Thaksin's companies as a trainee in the early 1990s, going on to take various positions within her brother's business empire.

She is a former president of the mobile telephone unit of Shin Corp., the telecoms giant founded by Thaksin that was at the centre of a scandal over the tax-free sale of the family's shares in the group in 2006.

While her business credentials are well known, observers say she has given few concrete clues about what kind of leader she would be.

"She is at the moment sticking by what Thaksin has asked her to do in a very detailed way," said a Bangkok-based Western diplomat. "I don't think we have yet seen what she is capable of."

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