Thailand: A touch of royalty

Date first published: 21/2/2019

Key sectors: all

Key risks: political instability; internal conflict; civil unrest

On 8 February Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya broke historical precedent by announcing her candidacy in long-awaited elections on behalf of the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is aligned with the powerful Shinawatra clan. The move sent shockwaves through Thailand’s political landscape and boosted hopes for a return to democracy after five years of military rule. The optimism was short-lived, however. Prospects for a removal of the junta from power were thrown into doubt after Princess Ubolratana’s brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, issued a rare order denouncing her candidacy. The royally-appointed Election Commission (EC) formally barred her prime ministerial bid on 11 February.

After repeatedly postponing elections since the junta seized power from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government in 2014, a royal decree and an official EC confirmation officially set the election date at 24 March. The vote could face more delays though the junta-backed constitution stipulates that a vote must be held before 9 May. Incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is unlikely to hold free and fair elections until he is sure to win. There are concerns that the junta is working with the King to ensure this; the initial proposed date of 24 February was pushed back to avoid overlap with preparations for the King’s coronation on 4-6 May, triggering protests from increasingly frustrated pro-democracy Thais. Moreover, the junta has taken several measures to ensure its hold on power post-elections. Notably, in April 2017 a new military-drafted constitution was signed into law which limits the power of political parties and ties future civilian governments to a 20-year plan.

Even so, in addition to a strong opposition consisting of Shinawatra-backed parties, divisions in the military apparatus threaten to undermine Prime Minister Prayuth’s political authority. Prayuth hails from the Eastern Tigers military faction, which, while royalist, is not as vehemently pro-royal as the King’s Guard, to which the newly-appointed army chief General Apirat Kongsompong belongs. Apirat favours increased powers for the monarchy, and in December 2018 he ordered coup regiments to be redeployed out of Bangkok, thus shaking up the military architecture that has long enabled junta regimes to shape politics. Security in Bangkok will be gradually handed over to the Royal Command Guard, which answers directly to the King. After the events of 8 and 11 February, rumours began circulating that the King’s Guard was planning a counter-coup led by Apirat against Prayuth’s ruling military faction. Reports of military tanks on the streets of Bangkok flooded news platforms but both sides have denied the rumours.

Despite signs of Prayuth’s authority diminishing, Princess Ubolratana’s short-lived leadership bid is likely to negatively impact the Shinawatras’ democratic aspirations and potentially even the revered monarchy. The Thai Raksa Chart Party is now facing dissolution for allegedly violating a law that states royal family members cannot be nominated for election. With dissolution likely, the only viable opposition party to Prayuth’s ruling Phalang Pracharat Party would be the main Shinawatra-affiliated party Pheu Thai. Though popular, it will be difficult for Pheu Thai to secure a majority in parliament. Another emerging opposition party called Future Forward Party has effectively been eliminated from the race as police announced plans to prosecute its leader on 20 February for criticising the junta.

Political instability and ensuing protests will be inevitable over the next few months. Amid the chaos there is also a real possibility that Prayuth will find justification to delay the elections again. Hopes for an end to junta rule rest heavily on the King. If royal intervention won’t save Thai democracy, then nothing will.