Thai Politics | The Princess and the Prachathipatai

Thai flag/ Image: Freepik

Thai electoral politics have been in a constant state of upheaval during the 21st century with multiple coups, military governments, new constitutions, and broken promises of popular elections. However, this election is in the midst of rising to a new level dysfunction with the erstwhile announcement of Princess Ubolratana to have been the Thai Raksa Chart Party’s candidate for prime minister.

Thai Royalty and Democratic Governance

The attempted entrance of Princess Ubolratana into Thai parliamentary politics is an interesting, yet convoluted, predicament. The move is constitutionally questionable, and has drawn the ire of her younger brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn. At issue is whether a member of the Thai royal family that had been cast out decades ago, and then only partially reclaimed, can disavow her contested royal status and run as a commoner in a Thai popular election. The issue will be decided by the Electoral Commission, but it is unlikely that it would rule against the King’s ardent condemnation. In response, Thai Raksa Chart has acknowledged the King’s proclamation and withdrawn their invitation to the Princess.

Royal imposition in Thai politics is nothing new, but Ubolratana’s proposed participation is unique. There is a tradition of strict separation between royals and politics, although this is a fabrication.  Over the last sixty years, royal politicking has been a consistent feature, but has remained secreted behind a guise of non-interference enforced so strongly that even suggesting that the Thai monarch was involved in the political sphere would result in a charge of lesè majesté. This ostensible partition has become a foundation of Thai governance under “Democracy with the King as Head of State.”

Princess Ubolratana’s earlier announced candidacy could not have occurred without her liminal status vis-à-vis the Royal Family. Stripped of her royal titles after an unsanctioned marriage in 1972, she returned to a royal orbit in 1998. However, she has yet to be formally reintegrated into the royal family, and her title is used more by tradition than by legal sanction. This betwixt and between allowed Ubolratana and the Thai Raksa Chart Party some flexibility in their decision to nominate the Princess; a flexibility both seemed willing to exercise, except for the King’s very public proclamation.

The political statement made by her alignment with Thai Raksa Chart is a clear response to Prayut Chan-ocha’s nomination by the Palang Pracharath Party. In terms of political strategy, Ubolratana’s mere affiliation with Thai Raksa Chart creates a major problem for Prayut, who is seeking to legitimate his position as leader through popular elections. His main competition has been Pheu Thai, the party of former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. Pheu Thai is considered the strongest active party, capable of capturing 250 of the 500 seats in the lower House of Representatives. This would balance the 250 Senators appointed to the upper house by Prayut’s current governing vehicle, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Princess Ubolratana’s support for Thai Raksa Chart, aligned with Pheu Thai, would open up a vigorous second front against Prayut’s Palang Pracharath Party and present a considerable challenge for the Prime Minister.

More Damage to Thai Democracy


Princess Ubolratana of Thailand/ Image: Sputnik

Opening up a second front against a military Prime Minister that has manipulated politics and delayed elections for nearly five years is not inherently damaging to Thai democracy. But there are ominous aspects of this double-envelopment tactic that warn of a democratic deficit in the upcoming election and for years to come.

Firstly, the 2019 election already had the look of a purely elite driven affair. This has been accentuated by the transformation of Thai Raksa Chart from a party that had presented itself as an agent for Thai millenials into a vehicle for outsider influence. Thailand has been experiencing a youth revival in popular politics, which has drawn the notice of King Maha Vajiralongkorn as a means to woo their support. Nonetheless, young Thais have become frustrated by what they feel to be a complete political disenfranchisement since even prior to the 2014 coup. The announcement of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Anakot Mai Party to participate in the next election spurred the participation of young politicians across the political spectrum. Parit Wacharasindhu, nephew of the Democratic Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has become outspoken against military rule. Pheu Thai party formed the Thai Raksa Chart to develop their next generation of leaders, but it has now been granted to the 67-year old Princess in a clear preference for immediate advantage over future growth. Disgruntled Thai youth will notice this tactic.

Secondly, regardless of whether the Election Commission would have allowed the Princess to stand as a candidate in the upcoming election, her affiliation with a Shinawatra-backed party will transform, and perhaps obliterate political discourse. The NCPO has effectively throttled opposition voices in the run-up to the election; candidates and their spokespersons do not have clear instructions about what can and cannot be said about the current PM and his government. With the Princess in the mix, the question of what type of utterances could be covered under the legal and traditional limits of Article 112 defining lesè majesté crimes is left undefined. The result is likely that no opponents can attack the Prime Minister but Princess Ubolratana, and no one including Prayut can confidently speak against her. An Ubolratana/Prayut face off could kill off all political discourse between now and March 24th.

Another danger to Thai popular democracy comes not from the silence of the politicians, but from the royal decree itself. King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s publically televised censure of his older sister’s announcement to participate in the election was made to preserve the strict separation of the royal and governmental spheres since the introduction of Constitutional Monarchy in 1932.  The Royal Command issued on February 8th states “Involvement of high-ranking members of the royal family in political system in any way contravenes royal tradition, custom, and national culture. To do so is therefore impertinent” and bars Ubolratana from political activity despite her lack of legal status as a royal. However, the command itself is a forceful intrusion into electoral politics that may defy the very traditions it proposed to protect. This could open a window for the King’s further overt interference into Thai politics, which would not bode well for popular authority.

A final concern involves the possibility that the major political players, and the royals themselves, have been in hushed negotiations over the future of Thai governance, and that what has appeared in the media are mere shadows in a cave. Thai scholar Andrew MacGregor Marshall earlier posited that Princess Ubolratana’s decision may have been part of a long rumored “grand bargain” between the Shinawatras and the King in to calm the discordant politics prior to his coronation in May. While the latest developments suggest this was an interesting but spurious proposition, one must question if some form of similar negotiation may have been in the works and then broke down later. Could Prayut and other anti-Thaksin actors have prevailed upon royal advisors to reject Ubolratana’s candidacy? The very possibility that elections are being decided beyond the ballot box may wipe away whatever legitimacy had remained regarding the next election.

Popular Government is Quite Unpopular

Thai democratic practices have been submerged beneath a web of elite rivalries and power grabs by the military, bureaucrats, and politicians of various colours and ideologies. The specter of overt royal influence in the political sphere will only serve to further remove the democratic process from the tenuous grip of the Thai people. Moreover, this episode threatens to open old wounds within the monarchy—will the new King be able to manage the vicissitudes of Thai politics as deftly as his father before him, will the open acrimony between the King and the Princess call into question the assumed unity of the royal family, and will the Princess’ attempt to vie for Thailand’s highest political office revisit her late uncle’s rumoured desire to do the same. What seems likely is that the elections slated for March 24th continue to become a little less democratic and a little bit more about the King as Head of State.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr. Kevin Downey

Dr Kevin Downey is a Freelance Academic Editor, primarily for the German Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance, a constitutional and international law think tank located in the Faculty of Law at Thammasat University. He was also a Lecturer in the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University - Tha Pra Chan from January 2013 to December 2018. He can be reached at kevin_downey@ymail.com

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