Thai king's sister named PM candidate by Thaksin-linked party

Move to nominate Princess Ubolratana marks monumental shift for nation and heralds sudden upturn for ex-PM's fortunes

Published Fri, Feb 8, 2019 · 09:50 PM


THAILAND'S Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya was named as a prime ministerial candidate in an unprecedented political upheaval ahead of the country's general election.

The decision by a party linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra to nominate a senior royal marks a monumental shift for Thailand, where the royal family is officially treated as semi-divine and apolitical. It heralds a sudden upturn for Thaksin, who lives in exile, and is a blow to the Thai junta leader's effort to return to power after the poll.

Princess Ubolratana will be the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party in the March 24 election, the party said on Friday in Bangkok. This would be the first time a senior royal has participated in a Thai election.

"This is a senior royal member, the sister of the king, so this is unprecedented in Thai politics," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "This makes Thai Raksa Chart, in a matter of seconds, the front-runner."

The long-delayed election will be the first since former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha seized power in a coup in 2014 after a period of unrest, becoming the leader of the country's military government. Mr Prayut on Friday said he'll also contest the poll as the prime ministerial candidate for the Palang Pracharath Party.

Friday's unfolding drama is a major surprise for investors, said Jitra Amornthum, head of research at Finansia Syrus Securities in Bangkok. The nation's currency weakened 0.7 per cent against the US dollar as of 2:27pm in the capital, leading declines in Asia, while the Thai stock market was little changed.

The coup Mr Prayut led unseated a Pheu Thai Party-led administration headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister. Thaksin or his allies like Pheu Thai have won every election dating back to 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or the military in a more than decade-long tussle for power with Thailand's urban establishment.

A telecom tycoon who entered politics in the 1990s, Thaksin won the support of millions of rural Thais with expanded welfare programmes, but opponents accused him of graft and challenging the power of the monarchy. He eventually fled to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power, charges that he denied. His sister Yingluck fled in 2017, also to avoid jail in a case she said was politically motivated.

Before the coup, the economy ground to a standstill amid sometimes bloody protests that pitted Thaksin's so-called red-shirt support base against yellow-shirt clad opponents. Mr Prayut prioritised stability but curbed freedom of speech and assembly.

The prospect of a party linked to Thaksin contesting the poll with a royal at the helm may spark fresh speculation about his chances of returning to a country he hasn't set foot in since 2008, but where he retains a loyal following.

"It'll be difficult for parties to run against the princess," said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University's College of Asean Community Studies in the country's north. "Voters would find it difficult to choose someone that's not part of her party, because Thai ideology puts the royals at the top."

Yet a small party that supports the junta later on Friday submitted a letter to the Election Commission objecting to the nomination of the princess, saying it should be suspended as it could violate election law.

Princess Ubolratana, 67, is the eldest child of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and sister of current monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn. She relinquished her royal title in 1972 when she married an American, Peter Jensen. After her divorce in the late 1990s, she returned to Thailand and received a royal designation.

The princess has a heavier media presence than any of her siblings, ranging from appearances in Thai movies and television to an Instagram page with about 100,000 followers.

Thailand has among the world's toughest lese-majeste laws, which make it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.

"The princess is not covered by the lese-majeste law, but of course if people start to criticise 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," said Mr Thitinan of Chulalongkorn University. BLOOMBERG


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