A Political Tsunami in Thailand

(UPDATED) In what is regarded as a political tsunami that could redefine Thailand’s political landscape, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, an allied party of Pheu Thai Party, nominated Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi as the party’s candidate for prime minister.

If the nomination stands – and there is concern over the reigning King Vajiralongkorn’s stance -- naming the favorite sister of the king makes the forthcoming general election scheduled for March 24th this year a foregone conclusion in favor of pro-democracy parties. The face of the next government, if headed by Princess Ubolratana, is expected to take a form of national reconciliation government that would incorporate elements from different political parties and groups.

It is not certain if Princess Ubolratana’s acceptance of the nomination has the tacit approval of the king, who will be officially crowned in early May this year. King Vajiralongkorn has so far consolidated his reign to restore key royal prerogatives and oversight over the armed forces. The new commander in chief of the army is answerable only to the king. He is said to have shown his displeasure with the past two military coups and is weary of the stranglehold on power that the elite establishment has had on the country for decades. He has previously taken steps to ease the implementation of infamous Article 112 on lese majeste offenses and to undermine the power of the elite and semi-fascist groups.

Princess Ubolratana is the eldest child of late King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit. She relinquished her royal title of “Her Royal Highness” given to “Chao Fa” or princess upon marrying an American husband but after some 26 years of marriage she broke up with her husband and returned and permanently settled in Thailand.

Although she does not get her royal title back (for now), she is still highly regarded by the Thai people as a Thai princess. She performs her royal duties by taking active part in many royal functions and charitable activities. Her name can also be written as Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, the latter being the surname of her grandfather, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej Vikrom.

Prior to the political bombshell being thrown into the election arena, the forthcoming general election was a contest between two opposing ideological camps: the pro-democracy one and the authoritarian camp which wants the continuation of Prayuth’s authoritarian rule. With Princess Ubolratana throwing her lot in the Thai Raksa Chart Party which belongs to pro-democracy camp together with its big brother Pheu Thai Party and allied Pheu Chart Party, the future of the pro-authoritarian parties, particularly the Palang Pracharat Party looks dim.

Some pro-democracy parties will withdraw their candidates for prime minister out of respect for the princess and in order to close ranks. The election campaigning is expected to be somewhat downbeat with little harsh exchanges between parties.

Princess Ubolratana is an avid user of social media and, through them, she has made no secret of her close relationship with Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, both former prime ministers who were the victims of military coups that brought down their popularly elected governments. Most of her adult life was spent in the US and she is well immersed in Western culture and values. She has a passion for music and had even showed off her talents in the celluloid world.

The princess’s political view is predictably different from her siblings and she has previously shown her preference for pro-democracy movements in Thailand.

How the Thai democracy will fare from this juncture onwards remains to be seen but Princess Ubolratana and her brother will certainly be a factor in the transformation of Thailand from authoritarianism under the military-cum-elite tutelage to some form of governance more acceptable to the pro-democracy parties and groups.

The semi-fascist groups such as the Yellow Shirts and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) which brought havoc to Bangkok in 2013-2014 will be left in irrelevant obsession with their outdated ideology. Their pretence of being the zealous protectors of monarchy as a revered institution will be shamefully exposed.

The current constitution crafted by the junta works well for the princess as it allows her, not a member of the parliament, to be chosen in a joint parliament session as prime minister. The 250 senators, hand-picked by the junta to support Prayuth, the current prime minister or any candidate of junta’s choosing, will have to undergo painful introspection as to where their allegiance should lie.

Before the unprecedented entry of a member of the royal family into the political fray, the Pheu Thai Party was expected to win a plurality of seats in the parliament, though not the majority. The royal exposure in the election will further bolster the Pheu Thai Party and, of course, Thai Raksa Chart Party ever more. A big landslide by pro-democracy parties could likely be the outcome of the general election at the expense of the pro-junta parties.

Before the advent of Princess Ubolratana, Thailand’s political future looked bleak. Most Thai people feared the continuance of military-elite stewardship and political instability engendered by the 2017 constitution. Post-election electoral authoritarian government under Prayuth would likely be a minority government which can be voted out by pro-democracy dominated House of Representatives.

Likewise, a Pheu Thai Party-led government would have to function under serious constraints and oversight by constitutionally safeguarded institutions controlled by the military. The democratic government can easily be brought down by oblique interpretation of the law by these institutions, namely the Counter Corruption Commission, Election Commission, Constitutional Court, et al.

With Princess Ubolratana at the helm, a new era of Thai politics would be ushered in. The afore-mentioned political impasse and standoff would be replaced by a more acceptable and workable arrangement. All political elements and players, including that of Thaksin and other self-imposed exiles, would be accommodated. It is hoped that, under the unity government, a new and more equitable and democratic form of governance can be found that would ensure justice, freedom, and level-playing field for all Thais.

Pithaya Pookaman is a former Thai ambassador to several countries and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. He lives in Bangkok.