Thai Princess Ubolratana was officially announced as a prime-ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart party at today’s (February 8) deadline for registering candidacies at the Election Commission.
The move represents the first time a top member of the royal family has sought political office since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The party is nominally, though not officially, aligned with self-exiled ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In a parallel development, coup-installed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced today that he, too, would seek the premiership at the polls under the Palang Pracharat party, widely seen as a political proxy for his military junta government.
In a statement, Prayut said he would run as the party’s sole prime-ministerial candidate in order to maintain “peace and order” in the kingdom. Prayut launched his May 2014 coup in the name of restoring stability after nearly a decade of revolving and often tumultuous street protests that crippled the functioning of successive governments.
“Although I served as a soldier for all my life, I am [still] willing to sacrifice myself in order to protect Thailand,” said Prayut, a member of the elite Queen’s Guard military unit.
Prayut had remained mum on whether he would enter the electoral fray, raising speculation that he might step away after nearly five years of heavy-handed and divisive authoritarian rule. It was not clear from an inside source that the leader was aware of Ubolratana’s intention to run until rumors started circulating in earnest on Wednesday.
The Palang Prachart party’s other two prime-minister candidates, Somkid Jatusripitak and Uttama Savanayana, both until recently ministers in Prayut’s cabinet, pulled back their candidacies on Thursday as rumors of Ubolratana’s candidacy gathered steam in the media. Asia Times first broke the story here.
A staunch royalist, Prayut’s candidacy will put him in the unique, if not conflicted, position of running head-to-head against a royal-family member. He will also be running against the Thaksin-aligned Puea Thai party he ousted in a May 2014 coup. Prayut is known to have a strong antipathy towards Thaksin and his aligned “Red Shirt” street movement that is represented by certain members in the Thai Raksa Chart party.
Ubolratana’s candidacy also puts Puea Thai’s prime-ministerial candidates in a tricky situation. One diplomat who spoke with Asia Times said Puea Thai had internally debated, at times heatedly, whether to withdraw its candidates to pave the way for Ubolratana’s uncontested bid for the top.
Some analysts already suggest Ubolratana’s and Prayut’s candidacies could eventually set the stage for the creation of a national-unity government, where Thaksin- and Prayut-aligned parties are remarkably brought together in a royally encouraged coalition. King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun’s views on his elder sister Ubolratana’s candidacy have not been made public.
Whether the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led Democrat Party would join such a unity government arrangement is even less clear. The ex-prime minister has maintained he would not join Puea Thai or a military proxy in a coalition, though it’s not clear that all in his party subscribe to that hard stand.
Nor is it clear how the political and business elites that lined up with the Democrats to stage the potent “Occupy Bangkok” protest movement launched in response to the Yingluck Shinawatra-led government’s attempt in 2013 to pardon the criminally convicted Thaksin would respond to any new bid to rehabilitate the polarizing ex-leader in the name of national reconciliation.
Puea Thai is widely tipped to win the upcoming polls, but has nonetheless formed a raft of proxy parties to secure seats that would likely be lost under a military-revised party list system that aims to prevent another Puea Thai landslide win. Thaksin-aligned parties have won every election held since 2001.
The Election Commission had in recent months threatened to dissolve Puea Thai if Thaksin was found to have any influence over its members, but the threat more recently inexplicably dissolved. Thaksin has appeared emboldened as the dissolution threat has eased, launching a new weekly podcast where he speaks on Thailand-related issues that have tacitly and symbolically criticized the ruling junta.
He has predicted Puea Thai could win as many as 300 of 500 seats up for grabs at the polls.
Ubolratana, the eldest child of deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is known to have especially close and trusted relations with her sibling Vajiralongkorn. Unlike the king’s two younger princess sisters, Ubolratana has not resided exclusively in the traditional royal court Vajiralongkorn is now changing and reforming.
Ubolratana relinquished certain of her royal titles and privileges in 1972, around the time she married an American medical doctor the princess later divorced in 1998. She is not covered under strict lese majeste laws that shield the king, queen, heir and regent from any public criticism through possible 15-year prison sentences.
After a surge of charges filed under the junta government, no new cases were filed under the law in 2018, a course shift many observers have attributed to Vajiralongkorn’s advice and guidance. Still, analysts already wonder how far the media and competing candidates can or will go in criticizing or scrutinizing the personal history of the royal princess while on the campaign trail.
Diplomats said earlier that Ubolratana was expected to have her full royal titles restored at or after Vajiralongkorn’s official coronation ceremony to be held between May 4 and 6, the first the kingdom has held since Bhumibol was crowned in 1950. It’s unclear if she could still seek public office if her full royal titles are restored, analysts say.
Foreign dignitaries have not been invited to the sacred occasion, only Thailand-resident ambassadors, diplomats and officials say.
Vajiralongkorn has so far consolidated his new reign with an alacrity and purpose that few observers anticipated, seen in the restoration of key royal prerogatives and strong new monarchical oversight of the armed forces, Buddhist clergy and crown properties.
Some analysts suggest that for the royal transition to be fully secure, Thaksin and his political allies need to be accommodated to avoid possible instability. Ubolratana, an avid social-media user and sometime movie star, is known to have cordial ties with Thaksin, dating back to his (2001-2006) premiership under the now dissolved Thai Rak Thai party.
Ubolratana was spotted in a widely disseminated social-media post at a World Cup soccer match in Moscow in July sitting next to Thaksin and his self-exiled coup-removed ex-premier sister Yingluck. Ubolratana has also been seen by diplomats in recent months in the United Kingdom at Thaksin’s private residences in London and Birmingham, sources told Asia Times.
Ubolratana also reportedly met with Thaksin in Hong Kong in December, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the meeting. It’s initially unclear if Ubolratana’s candidacy with a Thaksin-aligned party will open the ex-prime minister to fresh and historically potent accusations of playing politics inside the sacred royal institution.
Ubolratana, for her part, has cut a less formal image than other top royal family members, a human and sometimes offbeat touch she’ll now leverage for votes. Videos of the Swiss-born photogenic princess dancing dressed in a Santa outfit went viral over social media during the recent holiday season. Her Instagram feed showed her performing body percussion on herself to one of Bhumibol’s musical compositions in January.
She has also recently spearheaded an anti-drug campaign under the slogan “To Be Number One.” That could well now be the slogan of her Thai Raksa Chart party on the hustings.