Thai voters pick female prime minister

But with 1.2 million ballots invalid, sister of exiled leader must wait to rule

Supporters cheer Yingluck Shinawatra during a rally at the Pheu Thai party's headquarters in Bangkok as she was poised for a landslide victory Sunday. (Associated Press)Supporters cheer Yingluck Shinawatra during a rally at the Pheu Thai party’s headquarters in Bangkok as she was poised for a landslide victory Sunday. (Associated Press)
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BANGKOK — Thai voters on Sunday elected their first female prime minister — the sister of a disgraced telecommunications mogul who was toppled as prime minister in a military coup five years ago.

According to official results announced Monday by Thailand’s Election Commission, Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party won a landslide victory, taking 265 of the 500 seats in parliament. The incumbent prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his Democrats held only 159 seats.

Mr. Abhisit, 46, conceded defeat Sunday night and congratulated Mrs. Yingluck, 44, the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, toppled in a 2006 military coup. Mr. Thaksin later was sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges and fled to the United Arab Emirates, where he has lived in self-imposed exile.

Thaksin called me to congratulate me and encourage me,” a delighted Mrs. Yingluck told reporters at her party’s Bangkok headquarters where supporters cheered and screeched with joy.

Thaksin has said his sister is his “clone.” The Pheu Thai, or For Thais, party slogan is: “Thaksin Thinks. Pheu Thai Acts.”

Early exit polls also showed a parliamentary victory for Chuwit Kamolvisit, the flashy former owner of massage parlors and brothels who claimed to have paid bribes to police officers but campaigned against corruption.

As a member of the Rak Prathet Thai (Love Thailand) party, Mr. Chuwit attracted and amused voters on all sides with his comedy-inspired antics, theatrical facial gestures and claims to be against graft.

In a 2004 interview, he boasted of keeping a list of corrupt police whom he had paid a total of $5 million to “make my business smooth.”

Mr. Chuwit described the incriminating list as his “insurance” against harassment. During his campaign for a seat in parliament, Mr. Chuwit vowed to remain in the opposition so he could freely criticize whoever was in power.

Political activists are now watching for any hint that the military might attempt to reverse the election. Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha was involved in the 2006 coup.

Mr. Abhisit hoped to stay atop his coalition government with the help of Gen. Prayuth and other anti-Thaksin generals, along with businessmen, royalists and the urban middle class. Thaksin and his sister are supported by the country’s agricultural and industrial poor, or Red Shirts.

During the past few weeks, an acrimonious election campaign was filled with hateful sloganeering.

Mr. Abhisit denounced Thaksin as a “terrorist” and warned that many of Mrs. Yingluck’s Red Shirt candidates and supporters “torched our nation” last year in anarchistic arson attacks that left much of Bangkok smoldering.

Mrs. Yingluck’s supporters, meanwhile, blamed Mr. Abhisit for ordering the military to turn snipers, armored personnel carriers and other weapons against thousands of Red Shirt demonstrators in April and May 2010, resulting in 91 deaths, mostly civilians.

Thaksin compared Mr. Abhisit to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi “for ordering his troops to use live ammunition and deploying both snipers and tanks against protesters.”

Away from the finger-pointing, all sides agreed that this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation needs “reconciliation” so the military will not stage yet another coup, after 18 successful and attempted coups since 1932.

But Sunday’s election was mostly about Thaksin’s fate.

“I like both Mr. Thaksin and Mr. Abhisit,” said a hotel manager who declined to reveal her final choice.

Mr. Thaksin was very good for the economy. Now with him gone, we are having high prices and other problems. Mr. Abhisit was good with the foreign community and investors because, I think, international people accepted him more.”

All parties offered similar, populist, tax-funded policies including cheap health care, easy loans, commodity price supports, educational assistance, huge infrastructure projects and other spending.

After the 2006 coup, Thaksin fled a two-year prison sentence for allowing his ex-wife to purchase real estate in Bangkok at a low price while he was prime minister.

In a separate stock-market corruption case, the government seized $1.2 billion of Thaksin’s assets, which he hopes his sister can refund.

“The government stole my money,” he claimed, calling his trial politically motivated.

A confrontation over whether or not to exonerate Thaksin and refund his cash could spark fresh violence if Mrs. Yingluck and the Red Shirts push an amnesty plan, Thai analysts and politicians warned.

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