Thai royal named candidate for PM

This file photo shows Thai Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya visiting the Thailand pavilion at the Hong Kong Entertainment Expo in 2010. The Thai princess is to run for Prime Minister with a Shinawatra-linked party according to party officials on 8 February, 2019. (Mike Clarke / AFP Photo)

Thailand’s Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya has been named the prime ministerial candidate for a party linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in one of the country’s biggest political upheavals.

Ubolratana will be the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party in the 24 March general election, its leader Preechaphol Pongpanit said Friday in Bangkok. This would be the first time a senior royal has participated in a Thai election – a monumental shift in a country where the royal family is officially treated as semi-divine and apolitical.

"This is unprecedented for Thailand," said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of ASEAN Community Studies in the country’s north. "It’ll be difficult for parties to run against the princess. It’ll be hard for anyone to campaign against her. Voters would find it difficult to choose someone that’s not part of her party, because Thai ideology puts the royals at the top."

The long-delayed election will be the first since former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in a coup in 2014 after a period of unrest, becoming prime minister in the country’s military government. Prayut on Friday said he’ll be the prime ministerial candidate for the Palang Pracharath Party.

The coup he led unseated a Pheu Thai Party-led administration headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. Thaksin or his allies like Pheu Thai have won every election dating back to 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or the military in a more than decade-long tussle for power with Thailand’s urban establishment.

Thaksin’s shadow

A telecom tycoon who entered politics in the 1990s, Thaksin won the support of millions of rural Thais with expanded welfare programs, but opponents accused him of graft and challenging the power of the monarchy.

He eventually fled the country to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power, charges that he has denied. His sister also fled in 2017, to avoid jail in a case she said was politically motivated.

The prospect of a party linked to Thaksin contesting the poll with a royal at the helm may spark fresh speculation about his chances of returning to a country he hasn’t set foot in since 2008, but where he retains a loyal following.

Media presence

"It’s really throwing the political scene into a loop," said David Streckfuss, a scholar of Southeast Asian politics and honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "It’s something very new for Thai society."

Ubolratana, 67, is the eldest child of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and sister of current monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn. She relinquished her royal title in 1972 when she married an American, Peter Jensen. After her divorce in the late 1990s, she returned to Thailand and received a royal designation.

The princess has a heavier media presence than any of her siblings, ranging from appearances in Thai movies and television to an Instagram page with about 100,000 followers. Her full name is Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi.

Thai Raksa Chart, a Pheu Thai offshoot, relaunched itself late last year. Like all the parties contesting the upcoming election, it had to submit its candidate list by 8 February. - Bloomberg