After a tumultuous start to the 21st century, Thai politics went on pause with the ouster of the civilian government in a 2014 military coup. With a new constitution in place, and elections set for March 24, the military is hoping to prevent a return to the contentious politics of the pre-coup days.
After nearly five years of military rule and several delayed promises to hold elections, Thailand is gearing up for the return of politics. But the country's March 24 election threatens to shake up the royal family's role in politics and upset Thailand's long-standing balance between its monarchy, military and civilian government. On Feb. 8, Thai Princess Ubolratana Mahidol announced that she plans to stand as the prime ministerial candidate from the Thai Raksa Chart Party. The princess is the older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the party is a proxy for exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The king swiftly released a statement condemning his sister's plan to run as both inappropriate and unconstitutional, a decree that could potentially upend her bid before it begins. And the pro-junta People's Reform Party asked Thailand's election commission to rule on the legality of the move, citing election law Section 17 that forbids the use of the monarchy for campaigning, as well as a constitutional court ruling that the monarchy must remain above politics. Thai Raksa Chart responded that it had no plans to use Ubolratana's name in its electioneering. The junta-backed Palang Pracharath Party selected military junta Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha as its candidate. The election commission has until Feb. 15 to approve all prime ministerial candidates, although the king’s order might force a decision before then.
Why It Matters
Ubolratana's announcement dropped a bombshell in Thai politics. And if her bid is allowed to proceed, it could potentially turn the politically aloof role of the royal family on its head. The junta-backed candidates would find it challenging to run (even symbolically) against a member of the venerable royal family, especially given the lack of clarity on whether the princess is protected by the kingdom's draconian lese majeste laws, which forbid the defamation of the royal family. This might even mean that Prayuth steps aside from his bid to become prime minister himself. However, the Thai political establishment will try to avoid this situation altogether by seeking to have the princess declared ineligible to run — that is if the king’s condemnation doesn’t first harpoon her campaign. The 2017 Thai Constitution maintains a strong role for the military, which will help determine the members of the 250-member Senate, with only the lower house subject to elections and vulnerable to a no-confidence vote from senators.
By remaining above day-to-day politicking, the monarchy has served as a pillar of political stability amid Thailand's decadeslong cycle of military and civilian government. The death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 2016 after seven decades on the throne threw the future of the delicate royal-military-civilian balance in question. His son and the younger brother of Princess Ubolratana will be coronated in May. Ubolratana was stripped of many of her royal privileges in 1972 after she married an American. Her marriage ended in 1998 and she moved back to Thailand. She was believed set to have her privileges reinstated after her brother's coronation.
On March 24, Thailand will hold its first election since the 2014 military coup ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who joined her brother, the former prime minister, in exile. The Shinawatra-aligned Pheu Thai party is running in next month's election. But politicians aligned with the politically powerful Shinawatra family have also stood up a number of proxy parties to increase their chances in a constitutional order tilted toward mid-sized parties and in which there is always the risk that the junta could dissolve Pheu Thai. The Thai Raksa Chart party is one of these proxies.