SAN KHAMPAENG, THAILAND — Once again the Shinawatra clan has pulled off an unlikely feat: One of the wealthiest families in Thailand has convinced the poor and politically disenfranchised that it understands their problems, feels their pain and will fight for their rights.
The paradox of a billionaire family winning Sunday’s election by championing the have-nots — a notion that flabbergasts its adversaries — was on full display here in San Kamphaeng, the Shinawatra family’s hometown.
In grubby market stalls and ramshackle shops, residents flew red flags that advertised their support for Thaksin Shinawatra and his younger sister, Yingluck, who is now in line to become Thailand’s first female prime minister.
“We are so happy and relieved,” said Somboon Kamduang, a 55-year-old resident who scratches out a living selling peanuts and beans in the market and singing in restaurants at night.
Mr. Somboon said he was one of dozens of residents who gathered at the covered marketplace on Sunday night to watch election returns on television — and cheer the victory.
There were similar celebrations across north and northeast Thailand after the surprisingly strong victory of Pheu Thai, as the party led by Ms. Yingluck is known. Opponents of the party fear a surge of populist policies, increased debt for the country and a revival of what they say were efforts by Mr. Thaksin to dilute democratic checks and balances.
But here in the birthplace of a now revitalized Shinawatra political dynasty, the victory Sunday was personal.
“We have been tormented since 2006,” said Piyapong Pookklai, 61, a classmate of Mr. Thaksin at the local primary school. The military coup that year removed Mr. Thaksin from power and the election Sunday was seen here as both a vindication and an act of defiance toward the coup makers.
A caravan of pick-up trucks from the Pheu Thai Party drove triumphantly through town on Monday, with loudspeakers blaring a grateful message to voters: “We will bring happiness back to you, brothers and sisters! Thank you!”
The caravan was led by Mr. Thaksin’s niece, Chinnicha Wongsawad, who was re-elected as a member of Parliament with a commanding 78 percent of the vote. At 29 years old she is one of the youngest members of the Shinawatra family.
She joins the growing dynasty: In 1969 Mr. Thaksin’s father, Lerdt, was elected to Parliament and served a little more than two years. (Like his son nearly four decades later, his term was interrupted by a military coup.) Mr. Thaksin’s sister, Yaowalak, served as an official in the municipal government of Chiang Mai, the busy capital of northern Thailand a half-hour drive from here. Mr. Thaksin’s brother, Payap, was a member of Parliament for one year until the 2006 coup.
Finally, Ms. Yingluck’s election to Parliament on Sunday marked her debut in politics. Previously she worked as an executive in Mr. Thaksin’s business empire.
The Shinawatra family started its silk business in 1911 and have spent recent decades converting their economic clout into a political power.
As Chinese immigrants who arrived in northern Thailand in the early 1900s, the family’s forebears were outsiders. But the family grew deep roots in the community, married local villagers, bought land, planted orchards, lent out money and soon became the overlords of the area.
Bangorn Auppara, 76, a resident who once worked for the Shinawatras, says the secret to the family’s success has been a mixture of hard work, resourcefulness, and “stinginess.”
The family became powerful in the area, she said, partly by lending out money and confiscating land when the borrowers could not pay back.
It’s hard to find someone here who has a bad thing to say about the family, partly because so many people in San Khampaeng work for them or rent property from them.
Most the buildings in town are owned by the various branches of the Shinawatra family, said Penphan Supittayaporn, 58, who sits behind the counter of the Shinawatra silk shop, one of the family’s businesses.
The silk business has seen better days — there were more stray cats than customers in the shop during a visit on Monday — but has become a sort of political shrine, with framed pictures of Mr. Thaksin and other family members attending ceremonies over the years.
Residents recounted how Mr. Thaksin started out working relatively menial jobs in the town. Mr. Piyapong, his classmate, says he sold ice cream with Mr. Thaksin on the streets. Mr. Thaksin also helped his father at a coffee shop in the market.
It was perhaps this upbringing that helped Mr. Thaksin develop an ability to connect with rural Thai voters — a trait that has apparently endured despite his enormous wealth earned in his telecommunications and other businesses.
To Mr. Thaksin’s detractors, especially among the elites in Bangkok, the kinship is a disingenuous facade to enlist the support of the masses. But Mr. Thaksin’s strongest appeal has been in the provinces, where part of his popularity is that he speaks a local northern dialect, distinct from the Thai spoken in Bangkok.
Mr. Thaksin’s brother, Payap, said in a telephone interview Monday that the nature of the family’s businesses have helped the family maintain a rapport with farmers.
“Our family used to have a fruit farm,” he said. “We planted orange trees, mango trees and longan,” he said, describing a tropical fruit common in northern Thailand. “I think it made us connect with the farmers more than others.”
Mr. Thaksin’s rural background also helped him craft the policies —
local financing schemes, crop-price supports, universal health care,
among others — that proved so popular with rural voters and cemented
their loyalty, Mr. Payap said.
For Mr. Piyapong, Mr. Thaksin’s classmate, the rise of the Shinawatra clan was something akin to destiny. He fondly recounted a festival at the local Buddhist temple five decades ago when he and Mr. Thaksin met with a Buddhist monk who asked what they “wanted to be in the future.” They were 7 or 8 years old, Mr. Piyapong, said.
“I want to be the prime minister,” he remembers Mr. Thaksin saying.
“Those words have stuck in my head until now. At the time, it was very unusual for a kid to say something like that.”