Thailand’s Movie Star Princess Is Running for Prime Minister
(Bloomberg) -- 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 her 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.
Ubolratana will be the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart Party in the March 24 election, the party said 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 Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power in a coup in 2014 after a period of unrest, becoming the leader of the country’s military government. Prayuth on Friday said he’ll also contest the poll as the prime ministerial candidate for the Palang Pracharath Party.
"Thank you for all the love and support from the Thai people," Ubolratana said in an Instagram post after her nomination. "I’d like to have the opportunity to bring glory to the country."
Friday’s unfolding drama is a major surprise for investors, said Jitra Amornthum, head of research at Finansia Syrus Securities Pcl in Bangkok. The nation’s currency weakened 0.7 percent against the dollar, while the Thai stock market was little changed.
The coup Prayuth 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 programs, 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 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. Prayuth prioritized 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 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.
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 has what the Ministry of Culture describes as a "casual" royal designation, making her status ambiguous. While Thais typically refer to her as a princess, Ubolratana in her Instagram post said she would be taking part in the election as a commoner.
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 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," said Thitinan of Chulalongkorn University.
Thai Raksa Chart, a Pheu Thai offshoot, relaunched itself late last year. Like all the parties contesting the election, it had to submit its candidate list to the Election Commission on Friday. The commission will check and validate the nominations by Feb. 15.
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