Ultimately undone by Thailand’s courts, Yingluck Shinawatra laboured under claims she was a stooge for her exiled brother. Yet the kingdom’s first female prime minister also displayed unexpected resilience during a turbulent stay in office.
Propelled to power in July 2011 by her family’s electoral base in the poor north and northeast, Yingluck was pilloried by foes as a political lightweight armed with little more than a winning smile and a hotline to her elder brother Thaksin Shinawatra – who once referred to her as his “clone”.
Thaksin, a divisive billionaire tycoon-turned premier, lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail in Thailand for corruption convictions, and is widely believed to be the guiding force behind his sister.
He was ousted by an army coup in 2006, which opened a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between his supporters and enemies.
Yingluck’s premiership was scuttled on Wednesday by the Constitutional Court which ruled that she abused her power in transferring a top security official shortly after she came to power.
For her first two years in office, the outlook seemed very different.
The photogenic former businesswoman charmed many of her critics and – keeping a public distance from her brother – maintained the peace across Thailand’s bitter political divide.
The 46-year-old reached out to the military – who after ousting Thaksin then helped unseat two subsequent pro-Shinawatra governments, and then led a deadly 2010 crackdown on her family’s “Red Shirt” supporters.
She also appeased political opponents within the Bangkok-based establishment, which loathes Thaksin and wants to curb the Shinawatras’ 13-year influence on Thai politics.
But the uneasy truce collapsed in November last year after a failed bid to pass an amnesty bill which would have enabled Thaksin’s return.
The move outraged government opponents who flooded the streets for months of rallies, which were pock-marked by violence that left at least 25 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Although Yingluck did not campaign publicly for the amnesty, the fiasco exposed her government as “a Shinawatra family affair”, according to Paul Chambers of the Institute of South East Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University.
Protesters demanded Yingluck resign, occupying government buildings and forcing her to conduct cabinet meetings at secret locations. But the premier dug in.
She gambled on new elections to bolster her battered administration, although those February polls were later annulled by the courts, trapping her in a caretaker role.
Yingluck became the focus of caustic – and often explicitly sexist – tirades by protest leaders.
The mother-of-one refused to joust with her detractors and held off on a violent crackdown of the sort that quelled her brother’s supporters in 2010.
But the pressure told and on more than one occasion she was reduced to tears in public – once after her young son was harassed by anti-government supporters.
” History will give Yingluck great credit for her conduct since November,” said Michael Montesano at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
“She has scrupulously avoided the use of state violence… maintained the dignity of her office and displayed humanity rather than arrogance while under great pressure.”
Her premiership also saw an extension of the populist “Thaksinomics” of her brother favouring the rural poor, including a generous rice subsidy scheme.
The bungled rice subsidy became a lightning rod for anger among protesters and also saw her fall under the glare of anti-graft officials, who are still mulling whether to indict her for negligence – which could lead to a five-year ban from politics.
Yingluck, who graduated in political science before earning a master’s degree in business administration in the United States, spent much of her career working in her brother’s business empire.
Rising from trainee status, she eventually became president of the mobile telephone unit of Shin Corp, the telecoms giant founded by Thaksin that was at the centre of a tax scandal over the sale of the family’s shares in the group in 2006.