Much Ado About Everything No 22: Thai Surprise

Do not expect Thailand’s military to lie down quietly in the face of the (quasi-)royal electoral challenge.

Update — 9 February: Much Ado About Nothing?

Just 24 hours after the event it appears that yesterday's surprise news that Princess Ubolratana was to run as a prime ministerial candidate in Thailand's 24 March general election may prove to be a proverbial 'one-day wonder'.

Her brother, King Vajiralongkorn, has issued a statement which includes the following:

"Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in whatever way, is considered an act that defies the nation's traditions, customs and culture, and therefore is considered extremely inappropriate."

He added that, in his opinion (which carries significant authority in Thailand despite question marks over his popularity), this applied even though his older sister had renounced her titles when she married (see main article below) and claims since to have lived as an ordinary citizen.

We can safely assume that the King enjoys the full support of the military, which appears effectively to have neutralised a move by the Thaksinites. The BBC's Jonathan Head has (quite reasonably) suggested that the move looks, in retrospect, "like a grave miscalculation", since it may well weaken the pro-Thaksin faction which had otherwise look set to secure a modest plurality (of around 25-30% of the vote) in the election.

This may not be the final word in this saga; but the King's word is certainly not to be underestimated and will certainly be exploited to the full by a military regime which (as a Thailand expert reminded me yesterday) has consistently sought to align itself very closely with Thailand's monarch.

The original 8 February article

There are times when not getting round to doing something pays dividends.

I flew home from Bangkok last week minded to write immediately about Thailand’s general election which is due to be held on 24 March. That I concluded during my visit that (despite its being the first — and long-delayed — election since the 2014 coup d’état) it all promised to be something of a non-event — with current Prime Minister (and former army general and 2014 coup leader) Prayut Chan-o-cha a firm favourite to continue as premier — is, to be honest, only part of the story. But, one way or the other, procrastination has certainly paid in this case as the election has — suddenly and totally unexpectedly — got very interesting.

The reason for this shift is the announcement earlier today that Princess Ubolratana Mahidol (pictured above by AFP), the sister of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, is, contrary to the established tradition of the royals staying out of politics, standing as a prime ministerial candidate. Just as surprising (at least on the face of it), she has been nominated by Phak Thai Raksa Chat, a small party which is closely associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the 2014 coup and subsequent new constitution (Thailand’s 20th in a century or so!) were supposed to neutralise entirely as a political force.

As analysts such as myself (not to mention regime insiders in Bangkok who were also, presumably, taken completely by surprise) try to weigh the full implications of this move, today’s Economist Espresso sums up what is currently known rather well as follows.

“Thai politics has turned upside down. For almost 20 years a political battle has pitted royalist elites against partisans of a former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Parties linked to Mr Thaksin have won every fair election since 2001; the army has twice ousted Thaksinite governments in coups, most recently in 2014. Although the ruling junta is theoretically restoring democracy via an election on March 24th, the process looked stage-managed to keep Mr Thaksin at bay. But the royal family has upended the generals’ schemes…. Thai Raksa Chart, a party founded by allies of Mr Thaksin, has nominated Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn. She should be able to attract support from both ardent royalists and Mr Thaksin’s followers: a unifying candidate to upend Thailand’s politics.”

Nevertheless, seemingly important questions remain unanswered, most notably the following.

  • To what extent is King Vajiralongkorn (who ascended to the throne following the death of his father, the revered King Bhumibol in October 2016 but whose formal coronation is not due to take place until 4-6 May) aware of, or even behind, his sister’s nomination? He has certainly not been averse to engaging in domestic politics over the past two years or so, including insisting on a number of amendments to the latest constitution, thereby posing some potentially important and as yet unanswered questions about the relationship between him and Thailand’s armed forces which have effectively controlled the country since the 2014 coup and which clearly intend to continue to do so under that constitution.
  • Assuming that he was at least in the picture in advance, to what extent is Mr Thaksin, who went to considerable efforts (and expense) to woo him when the King was still Crown Prince, also involved?
  • Granted that The Economist is almost certainly correct about her unifying power (even though she is official no longer a ‘royal’, having given up her royal title in 1972 to marry an American from whom she is now divorced), is the newly rigged electoral system still sufficiently robust to prevent Princess Ubolratana from becoming Prime Minister — if, that is, I am correct in my guess (no more than that at this stage) that the military opposes her candidacy?

The key factor at the heart of the third of these questions is that the prime minister is elected by a simple majority of the two houses of the legislature (ie 376 votes). Although the lower house of 500 representatives is elected by plebiscite (ie in the 24 March ballot) — albeit under a mixed constituency/PR system which appears to have been designed specifically to trim the representation of big parties such as Mr Thaksin’s (which currently operates as Pheu Thai) — the upper house (or Senate) comprising 250 members is entirely appointed, essentially by the military. Thus, any potential prime minister/government not beholden to the military would need to command a massive three-quarters of the seats in the lower house to have an overall majority.

This sounds like a very tall order. But I take seriously the words of top Thai political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak (with whom I have worked closely on several occasions in the past) when he opines as follows.

“This is a senior royal member, the sister of the king, so this is unprecedented in Thai politics. This makes Thai Raksa Chart, in a matter of seconds, the front-runner. The princess is not covered by the lèse majesté law, but of course if people start to criticize her, it may be deemed to be a criticism of the Thai king as she is his sister, so I would not be surprised to see rival candidates back down.”

Nevertheless, Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law, to which Mr Thitinan rightly refers, has not prevented one small party closely associated with the junta from formally appealing to the Election Commission to suspend Princess Ubolratana’s nomination on the grounds that it could violate the electoral laws.

All this being said, the army has spent nearly five years since the 2014 coup effectively rigging the system to minimise the power of Thailand’s politicians in general and Mr Thaksin and his supporters in particular. Even if (and it may still be a big IF), Princess Ubolratana succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, she and her government will be constitutionally bound to follow the military's 20-year blueprint for the country; and it will be easier for the supposedly independent Constitutional Court, which has enhanced powers under the new constitution, to constrain those in government even more than its still far-reaching ability to do so in the past.

Thus, although it is far from clear how events will unfold over the coming seven weeks or so, I certainly do not expect Thailand’s military simply to surrender what they will see as their hard-won gains of the past five years.

Alastair Newton