A Thai princess will run for prime minister in upcoming elections, in a stunning twist that pits the high-profile royal against the chief of the ruling junta who had hoped to maintain his grip on politics.
Princess Ubolratana, the older sister of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn, emerged as a candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart party steered by the divisive Shinawatra political clan.
“The board agrees that the name of Princess Ubolratana, an educated and skilled person, is the most suitable choice,” Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters.
The party falls under the tutelage of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire self-exiled former premier, who stands at the heart of Thailand’s bitter decade-long political schism — loathed by the army and Bangkok elite, yet adored by the rural poor.
The announcement means a royal-fronted party tied to the Shinawatras will directly take on the military party, whose own candidate was also announced Friday as junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha.
Prayut has headed the junta for nearly five years, scripting a new constitution in a bid to recast the entire political system to ensure the army has a foothold on power after elections on March 24.
But the shock entrance of 67-year-old Ubolratana is likely to throw the military’s plans into disarray.
In a day of high political drama, Prayut declared his candidacy for premier moments after the princess.
“I agree to accept the invitation by Phalang Pracharat to nominate me to be appointed as premier,” he said in an unusually conciliatory statement released to media. “I want to reassure that I do not intend to hang on to power. It is not easy for me to make my decision… it is a crucial moment for the country.”
The military under Prayut has cast itself as the protector of the monarchy. But Ubolratana’s sudden entrance into politics, aligned with the junta’s nemesis — the Shinawatra family — undercuts those claims.
It also potentially bridges the political divide between the “Red” shirted loyalists to Thaksin and the “Yellow” shirted royalist supporters, whose violent clashes have scarred Thailand’s recent history.
Ubolratana, a colorful, public-facing royal in contrast to her more restrained brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn, relinquished her royal titles after marrying an American decades ago. But the couple divorced and she moved back to Thailand where she is still considered part of the royal family.
Thailand has not had a royal as premier since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. It was not immediately clear if Ubolratana would be covered by the kingdom’s hardline royal defamation law — which carries up to 15 years in jail per charge — or how that could impact debate and criticism in the run up to elections.
“It is unprecedented if she becomes prime minister,” said Puangthong Pawakapan, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. “Can people treat her like a commoner? Who would dare criticize a royal prime minister?”
Known to the public for lead roles in Thai films, onstage singing performances, vibrant fashion sense and a prolific Instagram following, Ubolratana is the first-born child of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
She was seen at the World Cup in Russia smiling with Thaksin and his sister Yingluck — also a former prime minister — and has over the junta years given a number of coded nods on social media in favour of the Shinawatras.
Since ascending the throne in 2016 King Maha Vajiralongkorn has reorganized palace affairs.
The vastly wealthy Crown Property Bureau is now under his personal stewardship, he has appointed several new privy counsellors and established a highly trained personal guard.
Crucially he has appointed a new army chief from a different faction of the military to the ruling junta. AFP