Last week, the King of Thailand blocked Princess Ubolratana from running for Prime Minister. As pro-junta groups seek to capitalize on this misstep by a pro-reform party, they could derail the elections.
The Thai royal family returned to politics last Friday when Princess Ubolratana Mahidol announced her candidacy for prime minister in the country’s upcoming elections but was promptly blocked from running by her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
The Princess was invited to run by Thai Raksa Chart, a party aligned with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the populist red shirt movement. The pro-military People’s Reform Party responded by requesting that the Election Commission determine whether Ubolratana’s candidacy was legal.
Soon after, King Vajiralongkorn issued a statement proclaiming that members of the royal family are obligated to stay out of politics and that the Princess’ candidacy would violate Thailand’s constitution. “Any attempt to involve a high-level member of the Royal Family in the political process… would be tantamount to breaching time-honoured royal traditions, customs and national culture,” the statement read. “Such action must be deemed transgression and most inappropriate.”
Thai Raksa Chart quickly said they would comply with the royal order and withdrew Ubolratana’s candidacy.
Conservative groups and activists are now pushing for the dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart and potentially the red shirt Pheu Thai party over the nomination of the Princess. But if the petition succeeds and the courts ban the party, the move will likely backfire.
Recent polling showed that red shirt parties already have the popular support necessary to win the election. If the courts and Elections Commission dissolve the movement’s main parties, the majority of voters in Thailand will be left disenfranchised, throwing the legitimacy of the election into question.
An alliance with Ubolratana has generated more support for Thailand’s reform parties
The election is now set for March 24, despite speculation that it would be delayed until after King Vajiralongkorn’s coronation in May. The clout of the Princess will give pro-reform the added support of more liberal royalists, even if the Shinawatra faction knew the candidacy would fail.
Red shirt parties have traditionally avoided any discussion of the monarchy as a political issue, instead focusing their rhetoric on reform and moving the country forward.
Through many coups and attempted coups, Thailand’s monarchy has remained a symbol of stability in the country’s turbulant political landscape. Ubolratana’s explicit support for a pro-reform party means independent and moderate voters who most value the stability represented by the royal family can now cast a vote for political equality with the backing of the Princess, rather than being forced to back pro-junta royalist groups.
The added popular support will also increase the reform parties’ chances of actually accomplishing their agenda if they do win in March. They would face an uphill battle, as the military government has worked hard to entrench its power through measures like the legally-binding National Strategy Act, a 20-year road map for the country’s development.
Thai Raksa Chart leader Preechaphol Pongpanit maintains, however, that their nomination of the Princess complied with all constitutional requirements. It’s possible that the constitution doesn’t require Ubolratana to remain politically neutral, as she relinquished her royal status in 1972 when she married an American man, Peter Jensen, who she met while a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and lived in the US from 1972 to 1998. She moved back to Thailand after the two divorced.
The party’s leadership may or may not have known that the King would block Ubolratana’s run but by drawing on her wide support base, they’ve now added further potency to their calls for reforming the political power structure.
Action against Thai Raksa Chart will throw Thai democracy into question
Before their alliance with Ubolratana, the red shirts already had the popular support they needed to elect a pro-reform legislature. But as her endorsement provides momentum and a broader base of support, it makes any attempts to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart even riskier for the junta.
On Monday, the Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution filed a petition with the Election Commission to refer Thai Raksa Chart’s nomination of Ubolratana to the Constitution Court, which could dissolve the party.
Parties affiliated with Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra have won every election since 2001 and polls show this should be the case again in 2019. Though Thaksin has been in exile since he was ousted in a coup in 2006, his primary proxy has been the Pheu Thai Party, the largest progressive party in Thailand today.
Pheu Thai is under investigation by the Election Commission for violating the new Political Parties Law which prohibits outside influence from non-members on a party’s internal workings – in this case, the “non-member” in question is Thaksin.
The party has taken evasive action, rearranging its leadership structure so that prominent figures would not be banned if the investigations go poorly for them – and also establishing Thai Raksa Chart as a separate party to contest elections in an effort to get around Thailand’s new election laws.
Around 80% of Thai Raksa Chart’s registered supporters are reportedly “defected” from Pheu Thai. Though there are 350 seats in the House of Representatives at stake, Pheu Thai is now only putting 250 candidates up for election, with Thai Raksa Chart putting up 150.
This puts conservative parties and pro-junta groups in a risky place as they push beyond the King’s order blocking the Princess’s candidacy and call for action against Thai Raksa Chart. If the Election Commission and Constitutional Court take action against Pheu Thai as well, all of the parties’ candidates could end up disqualified, leaving a wide swath of Thai voters without a strong option on the ballot in March. This could lead to unrest, as Thai voters scramble for a pro-reform option that protects their interests.
Should the opposition be dissolved, the yellow shirt factions will imperil the political stability they claim to champion.
The Princess’ brief run gives red shirts an added boost, whether or not Thai Raksa Chart survives
But as investigations against Thai Raksa Chart move forward, the added support from Ubolratana may provide the momentum boost the red shirts need to recover and form a winning coalition.
The call for the royal family to stay out of politics in Thailand is itself political. The petition to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart, and Pheu Thai as well if possible, threatens the legitimacy of the long-awaited elections. Princess Ubolratana’s brief candidacy for prime minister only makes the idea of taking away red shirts’ representation an even riskier move.
The King’s statement that her candidacy is unconstitutional and inappropriate will go down as Vajiralongkorn’s first big public move in Thai politics. But if conservative and pro-military groups weaponize on the King’s order for political gain, they could derail long-awaited elections and the transition to democracy.