BANGKOK/KHON KAEN (Reuters) - Thailand’s generals could hardly have planned it better.
The flight of ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra before a court verdict for negligence leaves the populist movement that has dominated Thai politics for a generation leaderless and in despair.
It also means Yingluck doesn’t become a martyr, as she could have done if she had been jailed over the costly rice subsidy scheme, or get let off lightly, which could have raised awkward questions over why the military overthrew her in 2014.
What it doesn’t do is eliminate the Shinawatras’ power base: the largely poor and provincial Thais who have had the numbers to deliver them victory in every election since 2001 despite the best efforts of pro-army and deeply royalist conservatives.
Yingluck fled just before a court verdict on her criminal negligence trial over a multi-billion dollar scheme to help poor farmers, sources within her Puea Thai Party said.
They said she had gone to Dubai to join her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-made billionaire and family patriarch who was overthrown as prime minister in 2006 and fled to escape a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated.
Neither Thaksin or Yingluck could be reached for comment.
“The party has no true leader right now. Without Yingluck the party is headless,” said one senior Puea Thai Party member, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “It doesn’t have a figurehead that the people love.”
Yingluck, 50, had been banned from politics for five years by the junta in 2015, but could have rallied support for her party at elections the army has promised for next year.
That would have been harder if she had been sentenced over the estimated $8 billion losses on the rice scheme, but jail would have made her a rallying point with glamorous star power at home and abroad.
Her departure meant she would not become Thailand’s version of neighbouring Myanmar’s once long-detained Aung San Suu Kyi.
“This will embolden the military government because they did not have to put her in jail,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, the director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
Government spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak declined to comment on the case or the implications of Yingluck’s absence.
There was no evidence the junta had been aware Yingluck might have intended to skip bail, but suspicions circulated among her supporters that her departure was very convenient for the military government.
“She was closely monitored by authorities. It isn’t possible that she left the country without help,” said Thanawut Wichaidit, of the red-shirt United Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship political movement that supports the Shinawatras, without offering any proof.
The crowds of supporters bearing roses and bunches of rice at Yingluck’s previous court appearances had shown her enduring support despite crackdowns on dissent since the coup.
In the red-shirt heartlands of Thailand’s rural northeast, the mood was sombre. Yingluck supporters sympathised with her for fleeing, but didn’t know who could replace her.
Yingluck took over despite being a political novice after Thaksin fled into exile and succeeded through personal charm and charisma - as well as his distant backing. There are no obvious candidates now.
“I don’t have the skill,” Yingluck’s older sister, Monthathip Kovitcharoenkul, 58, a businesswoman who had been talked about as a potential candidate, told reporters.
The constituency the Shinawatras represented has not disappeared, however. That potentially complicates the military’s plans for an election even with a new constitution that entrenches the power of the generals for years to come.
Electoral numbers show the poorer, aspiring parts of Thai society have more votes than backers of the entrenched elite and its yellow shirt followers.
The majority Shinawatra-supporting northeastern and northern regions alone account for more than 45 percent of Thailand’s population, according to the most recent official data. They accounted for less than 12 percent of the economy.
“If they field a dog as a candidate in the northeast it would win a seat in the election,” said Wassawan Ken-kla, 40, a local leader in northeastern Udon Thani.
After Yingluck’s flight, poor, rural voters who had benefited from Shinawatra policies may become even more sympathetic, said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University in the northern Thailand.
“Other Puea Thai leaders will soon emerge,” he said.
Even without the party, the red shirt movement said it would carry on. It played a pivotal role in backing both the Puea Thai Party and Thaksin’s former party, Thai Rak Thai, which was dissolved in 2007.
“We will vote for any party that supports us and is on the side of democracy,” Thanawut, the red shirt activist, said.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Lincoln Feast