Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne Dec. 1, easing fears of an immediate succession crisis but ushering in a much longer period of uncertainty. The crown prince accepted a formal invitation to take the throne during an audience with Thailand's preeminent power brokers: the heads of the country's supreme court and National Legislative Assembly, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, and Privy Council chief Prem Tinsulanonda (who served as regent during the interregnum).
The event settles the most imminent questions surrounding the long-awaited royal succession process. When widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej died Oct. 13 after 70 years on the throne, the crown prince broke with tradition and protocol by allegedly requesting time to mourn before assuming kingly duties, spending most of the subsequent weeks at his villa in Germany. The unexpected interregnum revived long-held fears of a contested royal succession, which would prove deeply destabilizing for Thailand. Whether it was an attempt by the crown prince to assert some independence from the current military junta (which intends to channel the new king's influence toward its own aims) or, more alarming, the result of an internal military struggle, remains unclear.
The new king lacks his father's esteem with the public, and at 64 years of age with a well-established reputation for scandal, he will not gain it. As a result, he will not be able to play the role as court of last resort that preserves balance between Thailand's myriad military, business and political factions competing for power. The military-royalist establishment will try to fill the void left behind by the late monarch by promoting the good works of the more popular princesses and portraying the previous king as a guiding light even after death. However, these elites are fundamentally ill-suited for the role.
Thus, there is likely to be trouble behind the scenes in the near future. In the coming months, rival factions in the Thai establishment will vie to either gain favor with the new king or limit his power and the monarch will attempt to use the levers of power at his disposal (such as vast business and real estate holdings) to boost his own independence. There will likely be sudden purges in the military or in firms with ties to the crown, curious legal cases against prominent figures and unflattering leaks about the new king's past indiscretions.
The destabilizing effects of succession will become more clear over the long term as the power landscape in Thailand adjusts to a weakened monarchy. Thailand's myriad political divisions will begin to return to the fore in the months leading up to the return to elections, currently slated for late next year. For now, the military junta appears still tightly in control of Thailand's political transition. After gaining public approval of the military-drafted constitution in an August referendum, the Thai junta is well-positioned to enforce political stability for at least the next year, with polarizing opposition figures, particularly former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, neutralized for the time being. A period of elaborate state-mandated mourning will continue into the latter half of next year, during which time mass protests against junta rule will not be tolerated. And though the royal succession process exposed the limits of the junta's power, the ruling generals appear to have succeeded in restoring order — a challenge likely to resurface with increasing frequency in the coming years.