BANGKOK — Thai lawmakers elected U.S.-educated businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra as the country's first female prime minister Friday, setting the stage for the 44-year-old political novice to take charge of a nation deeply divided since her brother was ousted in a 2006 coup.
Before Yingluck can officially assume the post, King Bhumibol Adulyadej must endorse her in a separate ceremony. Politicians and officials had gathered in hopes it would take place Friday evening, but went home without any action being taken or scheduled.
The vote comes a month after Yingluck's Pheu Thai party swept the July 3 elections, winning 265 seats in the 500-member lower house of Parliament. Alliances with smaller parties give it a 300-seat-strong coalition.
But Thailand's people remain split, and Yingluck will face the immediate challenge of keeping the country clear of the sometimes violent unrest it has witnessed since the army toppled her now-exiled brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.
To do so, she must navigate complex political terrain and find a delicate equilibrium between the coup-prone army and the elite establishment on one side, and the so-called Red Shirt movement on the other. The Red Shirts helped vote her into office and want to see justice meted out for the bloody military crackdown that ended the movement's protests in Bangkok last year.
Analysts say Pheu Thai's landslide victory last month boosted Thailand's prospects for stability in the short-term but that honeymoon may only last a few months.
"To reinforce the stability of her government, Yingluck must find a way to work in harmony with the military and the conservative powers without affecting what the Red Shirts have been fighting for," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
It won't be easy.
The party Yingluck heads is the latest incarnation of Thaksin's original Thai Rak Thai party, which swept elections twice before Thaksin was overthrown. Two pro-Thaksin prime ministers who followed were removed after hostile judicial rulings and parliamentary maneuvering that came as enraged "Yellow Shirt" demonstrators took to the streets, at one point shutting down both of Bangkok's international airports and stranding hundreds of thousands of travelers.
The Red Shirts have fought back, most recently by flooding downtown Bangkok in 2010 for two months in demonstrations that ended with more than 90 people dead and nearly 2,000 wounded — almost all of them protesters.
Yingluck's swift rise in the space of just a few months — from political unknown to holder of the nation's highest government job — is largely attributable to the fact that she is Thaksin's sister. Despite living thousands of miles (kilometers) away in the desert city of Dubai to escape a two-year prison sentence for graft he says was politically motivated, Thaksin remains wildly popular among supporters at home.
Now, Yingluck must prove she is not her brother's puppet, as critics claim, and deal with the controversial issue of his possible return from self-imposed exile under a general amnesty, which would enrage his opponents and could destabilize Thailand.
"We'll have to see if she can make her own decisions or will have to listen to orders from Dubai," Siripan said.
Thaksin, now 62, is legally banned from Thai politics, but he remains one of the country's most polarizing and influential figures — a point underlined by one of Pheu Thai's campaign slogans: "Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts."