19 February 2019

“Such action must be deemed transgression...”

Democracy Monument

8th February was one of the most extraordinary days in Thailand’s political history. That morning, in the first of the day’s unprecedented developments, the Thai Raksa Chart party formally nominated Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister ahead of the 24th March election.

The nomination caused an immediate sensation, as it indicated an apparent deal between Ubolratana (and, by extension, the royal family) and Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is loathed by Thai royalists, and Ubolratana’s association with Thai Raksa Chart, a party linked to Thaksin, caused profound shock. Prime Minister and coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha had long been expected to contest the election himself, and Ubolratana's nomination immediately put his political ambitions in doubt.

The junta’s constitution allows the military to appoint all 250 members of the Senate, gives senators the right to vote for the prime minister, and permits a non-politician to be PM. With 250 votes from the Senate, Prayut would require only 126 additional votes from the 500 elected MPs. The constitution also introduced a proportional representation system, designed to prevent a single party (namely, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai) from achieving a landslide.

Parties controlled by Thaksin have won every election since 2001. The 2006 and 2014 coups were both launched with the express purpose of eradicating his influence, though Pheu Thai remains one of the main contenders in the upcoming election. Thai Raksa Chart, led by former Pheu Thai politicians backed by Thaksin, was created as part of a pincer movement: a potential Pheu Thai and Thai Raksa Chart coalition that could subvert the constitution’s restrictions on an absolute Pheu Thai majority.

Even if Thaksin’s strategy had succeeded, the Senate votes would almost certainly ensure that Prayut remained PM. Hence the remarkable nomination of Princess Ubolratana: Thaksin recognised that Prayut could not be seen to challenge a member of the royal family. (Ubolratana became a commoner in 1972 in order to marry an American. After their divorce, she resumed her royal engagements, albeit without a formal title.)

At first, the bombshell announcement seemed like a masterstroke. However, by the evening, it looked more like political suicide. King Vajiralongkorn, Ubolratana’s brother, issued a written statement confirming his unequivocal disapproval of her nomination: “Any attempt to involve a high-level member of the Royal Family in the political process—by whatever means, would be tantamount to breaching time-honoured royal traditions, customs and national culture. Such action must be deemed transgression and most inappropriate.”

The King’s intervention was as unprecedented and unexpected as Ubolratana’s. In addition to instantly terminating the nomination, it publicly signalled that Thaksin remained persona non grata. (The statement also noted that legal immunity, constitutionally granted only to the King, could apparently be extended at his discretion: “Such provisions should no doubt apply to the Queen, the heir to the throne, and those members of the Royal Family close to the person of the Monarch”.)

Following the King’s statement, the Election Commission recommended that the Constitutional Court dissolve Thai Raksa Chart. The court is currently considering the case, though it has previously dissolved two other parties run by Thaksin (Thai Rak Thai and the People Power Party).