Today’s shock announcement that Thai Princess Ubolratana will stand as a candidate in the upcoming elections for a political party dominated by the ousted Shinawatra family will pit the princess against current prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – and further politicise a monarchy already deeply entwined with the nation’s future
The 67-year-old Princess Ubolratana, the older sister of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, will stand for premier on behalf of the Thai Raksa Chart party, it said Friday.
“The (party) board agrees that the name of Princess Ubolratana, an educated and skilled person, is the most suitable choice,” Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters.
The party falls under the tutelage of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire self-exiled former premier, who stands at the heart of Thailand’s bitter decade-long political schism — loathed by the army and Bangkok elite, yet adored by the rural poor.
The announcement pits a royal-fronted party tied to the Shinawatras directly against a military party, whose own candidate was also announced Friday as junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
Kyoto University associate professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who remains in exile after being targeted by the junta after the 2014 coup for speaking out against the military and monarchy, told Southeast Asia Globe that Ubolratana’s candidacy was further evidence of the growing role of the royal family in Thai politics.
“I think Prayuth is on his way out anyway,” he said. “More importantly, it demonstrates how Thaksin has become so successful in further politicising the monarchy, making it more political – and surely vulnerable.”
Prayut has headed the junta for nearly five years, scripting a new constitution in a bid to recast the entire political system to ensure the army has a foothold on power after elections on March 24.
But the shock entrance of Ubolratana is likely to throw the military’s plans into disarray.
Ubolratana, a colourful, public-facing royal in contrast to her more restrained brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn, relinquished her royal titles after marrying an American decades ago.
But the couple eventually divorced and she moved back to Thailand where she is still considered part of the royal family.
Thailand has not had a royal as premier since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
But Pavin was doubtful that the military-drafted constitution, which stipulates that almost one third of the National Assembly to be appointed by the military and binds the elected representatives to carrying out a “National Strategic Plan” dictated by the outgoing junta, would allow the princess – and her supporters in the Shinawatra clan –much room for reform.
“If [Ubolratana] becomes Thai PM, I don’t see how much Thailand will change under the current constitution,” he said. “The opposition will work to destabilise her government, and it could further complicate the colour-coded politics in Thailand.”
Additional reporting by Paul Millar