By Martin Petty
BANGKOK (Reuters) - With the help of her photogenic looks, disarming personality and popular appeal, Thailand's first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has helped maintain a fragile peace since being swept to power in a divided country one year ago.
The political neophyte, who leapt from running a boardroom to governing the country in less than three months, has surprised critics and reassured investors by rebounding from devastating floods and building ties with the top brass of a military entrenched in Thailand's rough-and-tumble politics.
But the honeymoon might not last much longer and the reason for that lies with her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former premier whose political machine catapulted her to power.
Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon, was toppled by the army in 2006 and has chosen to live in exile rather than serve a two-year jail term for graft. He is loved by the working class but loathed by Thailand's royalist military and conservative elite.
The big policy pledges that got Yingluck elected - minimum wage increases and rice price guarantees for farmers - have sparked an outcry from exporters and businesses, but the tension is all about her Puea Thai party's unspoken election platform: the return of Thaksin absolved of his graft conviction.
"She came into politics at a difficult time. She's managed pretty well, considering what she's been up against," said a Western diplomat in Bangkok. "But no one is in any doubt that Thaksin is in charge."
Thaksin is widely believed to sign off on virtually every move his sister makes, including cabinet appointments. On one occasion, he lectured her ministers in a teleconference and party officials frequently fly out to see him in Dubai, where he is based, or elsewhere.
Yingluck's coalition has control of three-fifths of parliament, which has given Thaksin the breathing space to try to consolidate power from behind the scenes, shoring up old allegiances in the police, business and the bureaucracy after a purge in the wake of his 2006 ouster.
His allies have played a shrewd game in carefully managing Yingluck's image to show the 45-year-old as down-to-earth, flexible and able to reach out to her brother's enemies.
She has held ostensibly friendly meetings with top army generals and a royal adviser accused by Thaksin's "red shirt" supporters of masterminding his overthrow.
Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former minister close to Thaksin and widely credited with playing a part in Yingluck's rise, rejects the assertion that she is Thaksin's puppet, holding the fort until he comes home.
"She's very quick to learn and it's been her strength all along that she doesn't quarrel with anyone. It wouldn't do her or the government any good if she fought back," he told Reuters
"She's followed her plan: 'Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai does'," he said, citing a party slogan in last year's election. "There's nothing wrong with that - it's undeniable that people still like Thaksin's ideas, especially his policies."
But some of the economic policies have been described as reckless and two other ideas Thaksin is credited with have caused old rivalries to resurface in the past two months.
Two bills being pushed through the normally sluggish parliament at extraordinary speed have triggered a brawl among members, a blockade of the assembly by anti-Thaksin "yellow shirt" activists and a court-ordered suspension on the grounds that the legislation could be a plot to overthrow the monarchy.
The parliamentary opposition says the bills - one to set up an elected assembly to amend an army-drafted constitution and the other a reconciliation plan all but certain to involve a general amnesty - are designed to clear Thaksin's name and return $1.5 billion of assets confiscated from him.
Yingluck denies it is all tailored to benefit Thaksin, while in speeches to supporters the ex-premier himself has vented his anger at what he calls a "judicial coup" in the making, accusing Constitutional Court judges of bowing to pressure to thwart moves to amend the charter.
A final ruling is due this month and Thaksin's supporters have threatened to hold protests if amendment efforts are blocked. Anti-Thaksin "yellow shirts", whose protests shut down airports and government offices and helped undermine two governments he led or backed in 2006 and 2008, say they will try to block the reconciliation bills.
"Yingluck has been transformed in the shadow of brother Thaksin, inheriting his support and popularity, but it's not going to be easy for her now," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a professor of politics at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
"The polarization remains in Thailand, there's no long-lasting solution, no end in sight, and she may not be able to overcome that."
Yingluck's rivals see her as a novelty people will grow tired of if more problems arise from the government's pursuit of reconciliation and constitutional changes, and bringing Thaksin back, that she has managed to distance herself from up to now.
Former finance minister and opposition Democrat Party heavyweight Korn Chatikavanij said Yingluck was a proxy presented to the public like a soap opera star and it was pointless to criticize her.
"Yingluck is certainly not comfortable. She doesn't answer questions posed to her by the press, she feigns ignorance of all issues that typical prime ministers should be right on top of," Korn told Reuters.
"We stay out of it because, frankly, whatever she does is not really relevant. Her job is to look pretty and smile and be as photogenic as possible, and she's done that job very well."
(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)