Thailand is on the turn after the turmoil over the past few years involving the government and the military. As a curtain-raiser to the elections, the dynamics of constitutional democracy are poised for a change with Friday’s dramatic decision of the Princess to throw her hat into the electoral ring, indeed to run for the office of Prime Minister. Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi’s entry ~ believed to be a masterstroke of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ~ is doubtless a challenge to the junta, which is unlikely to have a smooth sailing during the transition, as in Myanmar to the north. By any reckoning, a senior royal’s move has shocked the nation, as it has South-east Asia generally. Not the least because the Princess ~ a sister of the King ~ who carries the allure of Thailand’s most revered institution, has defied history by contesting for the office of the Head of Government. The certitudes of democracy lay rather thin on the ground in recent years; the concept will now be ever so exciting in a nation which is said to have been stifled by authoritarian rule. The momentous announcement has blurred the traditional distinction between the Crown and the government. Constitutional history has entered a critical phase, and this must be of primary import a month before the first vote is cast. The election will signify a genuine contest, and not merely the grandstanding that would have routinely marked the “coronation” of Prayut Chan-o-cha, leader of the military junta. No less significant is the nomination of the Princess.
It was put forward by the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is closely allied to Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, both former Prime Ministers who were ousted in military coups in 2006 and 2014, the second led by Prayut. The 2017 Constitution, created under Prayut, gives him, as Prime Minister, absolute power without oversight or accountability. The most recent report by Human Rights Watch has accused the regime of complicity in unlawful detentions, enforced disappearances, torture and other abuses, notably in predominantly Muslim, southern provinces affected by separatist unrest.
The reality must be daunting for any contestant, but Princess Ubolratana has accepted the challenge. It must be deeply distressing, however, to reflect that opposition to her candidature has come from within the palace itself. Her dream of becoming Prime Minister could even be thwarted by her younger brother, before it attains fruition. The rumblings within royalty were resonant on Friday evening, when the King declared her candidacy to be “inappropriate” and “unconstitutional”. It is as yet uncertain whether royalty’s objection represents the final word from the palace. If it is, the Princess will probably have no choice but to step aside. The shock announcement, reportedly at the behest of Thaksin Shinawatra, has made the outlook ever more uncertain.