Expert insight: Thai princess election shocker

Thailand’s tumultuous politics were highlighted on Friday with the news the Thai Raksa Chart political party had nominated Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister. 

Princess Ubolratana is the elder sister of the current king and daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016. She relinquished her royal titles after marrying an American commoner in 1972, but returned to Thailand in 2001 after her divorce. Since her return, she has been treated as a royal by the palace and media. She has degrees in mathematics, biochemistry and public health. In recent years she starred in several movies and now maintains a popular social media presence on Instagram.


Princess Ubolratana. Source: INSTAGRAM

The announcement of her nomination was followed that same night by a televised broadcast by King Vajiralongkorn in which he defended the position of the monarchy as “above politics”, and said his sister's involvement in the political process was "inappropriate". Thai Raksa Chart has now withdrawn the princess’ nomination, and faces dissolution threats.

Thailand is scheduled to hold its first election since the 2014 military coup on March 24. Friday marked the deadline for political parties to confirm their nominations for prime minister. The 2017 constitution allows for the prime minister to come from outside parliament, a provision that would allow current prime minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to represent the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party. The same rule would have allowed Princess Ubolratana to participate without being an MP.

The Asia Media Centre interviewed Southeast Asian politics expert Associate Professor James Ockey from the University of Canterbury, who has just returned from a trip to Thailand, about what Princess Ubolratana's nomination — and subsequent withdrawal — could mean for Thai politics. 

1. Were you surprised by the news of Princess Ubolratana's nomination? 

In one sense, this was not a surprise — the Thai Raksa Chart party was hinting at it for several days, and rumours had spread widely. That said, it still surprised me in that no member of the royal family has formally entered the political arena in the modern era, and the royal family has previously sought to convey an impression of being "above politics" — the exact phrase used by the king in his statement on Friday. Indeed, Thai Studies scholar Benedict Anderson once argued that the Thai monarchy benefited from having no formal power, as this meant that when things went badly, all blame would go to the politicians. So in this wider sense, it was quite a surprise.

2. Her nomination was quickly opposed by the king. So what impact, if any, will this have?

There has been at least some impact. On the one hand, the depiction of the royal family being "above politics" has been reconfirmed by the king in his statement. On the other hand, the acceptance of the nomination by the princess indicates strong support for democracy and for the opposition to the coup regime from a member of the royal family.

3. Will it have any significance for Thailand’s politics long-term?

Although the nomination has now been blocked, it retains some significance. Because the current military dictator, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, wanted to be able to continue in his role as prime minister without having to engage in electoral politics, the constitution was written in a way to allow him to do so. Political parties are allowed to nominate up to three people they would support as prime minister. These nominees need not be elected to parliament themselves, nor do they need to be members of the parties that nominate them. So Prayuth could be prime minister without being elected, without getting formally involved in a campaign, and without joining a political party.

The princess in accepting the nomination seemingly intended to do the same, highlighting the odd nature of the pathway Prayuth has designed for himself — a non-elected, non-democratic path that he somehow believes will legitimise his regime. The announcement also upstaged Prayuth's acceptance of his own nomination, and, at least briefly, introduced new excitement into the campaign for the opposition and its supporters. And it undermines the ability of the military to portray pro-Thaksin parties as anti-monarchy, a tactic employed in the past. 

4. What did her nomination signal about the relationship between those in the royal institution and the current PM?

The one thing we can say with complete confidence is that her acceptance of her nomination by a pro-Thaksin anti-government party cannot be helpful to a regime struggling to expand its popularity and its legitimacy. Beyond that, the signalling isn't very clear. We should keep in mind that Princess Ubolratana has always been a bit unconventional; she gave up her royal titles at a young age to marry an American, she has been an actor, a singer, and a fashion icon, and she frequently interacts with the Thai public through social media. Given that background, perhaps this may be primarily a personal decision, especially when seen in light of the king's statement later the same day.

That said, it is also worth noting that without a statement from the king, blocking the nomination would have been highly problematic for the regime. Thus issuing the statement may be seen by some as indicating a strong relationship between the regime and the palace — and if the regime is as unpopular as polls currently indicate, this may not benefit the palace.

5. What does this change for other Thai politicians and political parties?

It may embolden the opposition to the government, knowing that they have some level of support from a member of the royal family. We might also expect the government and the Election Commission to consider the cost to regime legitimacy of finding a reason under complex election laws to simply abolish the Thai Raksa Chart party.

6. What could this mean for Thailand’s cycle of coups?

Ultimately, coups take place in Thailand because the military is unwilling to abandon politics. The last four years have increased military expectations of involvement in politics, making coups more likely. In addition, the rewards for a successful coup far outweigh the risks of undertaking one, since those who plot coups and fail are generally let off with little punishment. Until military attitudes change, or until the risk/reward ratio shifts, coups are unlikely to end.

7. Anything else?

The current constitution was designed to return Prayuth to power. In that sense, it isn't surprising that we appear to be right back to that state. However, it is worth keeping in mind that while he needs only 126 seats in the elected parliament to be named prime minister, as the 250-member appointed senate also will cast ballots in the contest, subsequently he will need 251 of the 500 seats to govern, and that will prove much more difficult. We could easily see a stalemate if he is unable to create — or work with — a complex coalition government. That could again set up conditions conducive to a coup.

- Asia Media Centre