Thailand puzzles over political surprises from royals

Geraldine Edwards
February 11, 2019

Paiboon Nititawan, centre, leader of the People Reform Party, speaks to the media on Friday after submitting a letter to the Election Commission asking if the Thai Raksa Chart Party violated the law in nominating Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate.

The move by King Maha Vajiralongkorn's sister shocked a nation where top royals are officially treated with semi-divine status and protected by strict lese majeste laws that shield them from criticism.

On Friday, she was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate of the Thai Raksa Chart party, opposed to the military junta now ruling the country.

The Thai Raksa Chart Party in Thailand has cancelled its campaigning plans for the upcoming elections after the king rejected his sister's candidacy for prime minister.

The unexpected nomination of Ubolratana posed a turnaround in the political scenario in Thailand ahead of the polls, in which the head of the junta and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha will seek another term.

Analysts say the king's intervention would in any case have been likely to have led to the election commission disqualifying her from the 24 March election.

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His populist policies delivered him unmatchable electoral majorities, but he was resented by the traditional ruling class, including royalists and the military, and the army deposed him in a 2006 coup. She lived in the US for more than 26 years before they divorced in 1998.

Ubolratana's decision to link up with a Thaksin-backed party raised the possibility that she could help push through changes to the Constitution that would make it more democratic.

For the first time in the 86-year history of Thailand's constitutional monarchy, a member of the nation's royal family has run for prime minister.

Since Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya broke the tradition of royals being above state affairs, her candidacy is set to radically transform the Thai political scene.

In a written statement, Vajiralongkorn said Princess Ubolratana is "highly respected by all the royal family members" but that the monarchy in Thailand should remain above politics. She said she "sincerely wished" to see the kingdom progress and for people to enjoy unfettered rights, opportunities and happiness.

Thai Raksa Chart is an off-shoot of the main pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party whose government, led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted in the 2014 coup.

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"All royal family members adhere to the same principles ... and can not take any political office, because it contradicts the intention of the constitution", Maha Vajiralongkorn said. She studied mathematics and bio-chemistry at MIT and earned a master's degree in public health from the University of California at Los Angeles.

Shortly after the king's statement she posted again without addressing the issue directly, simply thanking Thais for their support and saying that she wanted Thailand to "move forward and become admired and accepted by the global community".

The first-born of the former king is an unusually public figure for a royal, having starred in movies and dished out advice to almost 100,000 followers on Instagram. "The provisions also cover the queen, heir-apparent and royal family members close to the king".

Soon after Friday's announcement, her catchphrase #SongPhraSlender (Long Live Slender) was number one on Twitter in Thailand.

Princess Ubolratana stepped down from being a royal family member in 1972.

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