[Analytics] Hints of a royal election deal in Thailand

Thai Princess Ubolratana lights a candle at a royal ceremony in Bangkok. Photo: Instagram

Diplomats and analysts in Bangkok are a flutter with widespread speculation that Thai Princess Ubolratana could join the electoral fray as a prime ministerial candidate under the newly formed Thai Raksa Chart party. Shawn W. Crispin specially for the Asia Times.

The still unconfirmed but fast proliferating rumors have been fueled in part by diplomatic reports that Ubolratana has met in recent months with self-exiled ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra at residences he maintains in the United Kingdom, variously in London and Birmingham. (Her full royal name is Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi).

The Thai Raksa Chart party is widely seen as a proxy party of the coup-ousted, Thaksin-aligned Peua Thai party. Thai Raksa Chart leader Chaturon Chaisaeng was until recently with Peua Thai and previously a prominent member of the “Red Shirt” street protest movement that clashed fatally with military forces on in Bangkok in 2010.

Peua Thai is widely tipped to win the most votes at the upcoming polls, but has nonetheless formed a raft of proxy parties to secure seats that would likely be lost under a military-revised party list system that aims to prevent another Peua Thai landslide win.

Thaksin-aligned parties have won every election held since 2001. The Election Commission had in recent months threatened to dissolve Peua Thai if Thaksin was found to have any influence over its members, but the threat more recently inexplicably dissolved.

Thaksin has appeared emboldened as the threat has eased, launching a new weekly podcast where he speaks on Thailand-related issues that have tacitly and symbolically criticized the ruling junta. He has predicted Peua Thai could win as many as 300 of 500 seats up for grabs at the polls.

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2016. file photo Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

Thai Raksa Chat party representatives queried by diplomats on the reports of Ubolratana’s potential candidacy have neither confirmed nor denied the speculation. One well-placed government official suggested without elaborating the rumors may have a political agenda aimed at undermining Peua Thai.

Asia Times was not immediately able to contact Thai Raksa Chart party leaders to comment on the speculation. All parties must submit as many as three prime ministerial candidates with the Election Commission on Friday, February 7.

Ubolratana, the eldest child of deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej and elder sister of new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, is known to have especially close and trusted relations with the monarch. Unlike his two younger princess sisters, Ubolratana has not resided exclusively in the traditional royal court Vajiralongkorn is changing and reforming.

Ubolratana relinquished certain of her royal titles and privileges in 1972, around the time she married an American medical doctor the princess later divorced in 1998. She is not covered under strict lese majeste laws which shield the king, queen, heir and regent from any public criticism through possible 15-year prison sentences.

After a surge of charges filed under the junta government, no new cases were filed under the law in 2018, a course shift many observers have attributed to Vajiralongkorn’s advice and guidance.

Diplomats say Ubolratana is expected to have her full royal titles restored at or soon after Vajiralongkorn’s official coronation ceremony to be held between May 4-6, the first the kingdom has held since Bhumibol was crowned in 1950. It is not clear that foreign dignitaries will be invited to the sacred occasion, diplomats say.

Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn in a file photo. Reuters/Sukree Sukplang

Vajiralongkorn has so far consolidated his new reign with an alacrity and purpose that few observers anticipated, seen in the restoration of key royal prerogatives and strong new monarchical oversight of the armed forces, Buddhist clergy and crown properties.

Traditionally, the Thai royal family has hovered above politics, but analysts suggest that could change as the kingdom heads towards a democratic transition after nearly five years of heavy-handed military rule that has wholly failed to reconcile deep political divisions. The ruling junta has, however, successfully steered a secure royal succession from Bhumibol to Vajiralongkorn.

Some analysts suggest that for the transition to be fully secure that Thaksin and his political allies eventually need to be accommodated to avoid possible instability. Ubolratana, an avid social media user and some time movie star, is known to have cordial ties with Thaksin, dating back to his (2001-2006) premiership under the now dissolved Thai Rak Thai party.

Ubolratana was spotted in a widely disseminated social media post at a World Cup match in Moscow in July sitting next to Thaksin and his self-exiled coup-removed ex-premier sister Yingluck Shinawatra. Videos of the Swiss-born princess dancing dressed in a Santa outfit went viral over social media during the recent holiday season.

Her Instagram feed showed her performing body percussion on herself to one of Bhumibol’s musical compositions in January, local media reported. She has also recently spearheaded a anti-drug campaign under the slogan “To Be Number One.”

While neither confirmed nor denied, Ubolratana’s speculated candidacy would put top politicians in the unprecedented position of competing against a royal family member for the premiership. One diplomat who spoke with Asia Times says Peua Thai is considering to withdraw its prime minister candidates in response.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha at Government House in Bangkok, November 29, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Others speculate her potential candidacy might explain why coup-maker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has so far failed to accept the invitation of the Palang Pracharat Party, widely seen as a proxy for his junta, to serve as one of its three prime ministerial candidates at the upcoming polls.

Prayut, a staunch royalist and elite Queen’s Guard member, has resisted political pressure to step down ahead of the March 24 election, saying he will continue to serve through the democratic transition in part to preside over the royal coronation ceremony. Prayut is tipped to become a royal advisory Privy Counsellor if he decides to step away from politics.

Final election results must be announced by the Election Commission on May 9, with what now looks like a possible royally endorsed – and headed – national unity government formally installed by mid-year.

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