A moment of shock for Thailand’s military

Thailand’s politics is full of unexpected turns and last Friday was no different. Shortly before the deadline, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya announced that she would compete for the position of prime minister for the Thai Raksa Chart party in the March polls. The party is considered close to the Shinawatra family, whose member, Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, was overthrown in a coup in May 2014. The head of the family is Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been living in exile for many years.

On the same evening, Ubolratana’s brother, King Vajiralingkorn, declared that his sister’s candidacy was invalid, immediately after which the Thai Raksa Chart Party annulled the sensational decision of the princess.

Ubolratana’s announcement was controversial, because it threatened the political control of the country by the military government under prime minister and former general Prayuth Chan-Ocha: The constitution that was adopted by Thailand’s citizens in a referendum in 2017, stipulates that the national assembly can suggest the new prime minister by simple majority. After that, the King only needs to appoint him.

Thwarting the strategy

This serves as a security net for the military. The national assembly has 750 seats altogether, including 250 senators and 500 members. The 500 members will be elected by the people in the end of March. The 250 senators will be determined by a committee appointed by the military government, meaning that military officials will participate in the polls with a lead of 250 seats to determine the new prime minister and the government. Together with the votes of pro-military parties, above all the Palang Pracharat party, there should be enough votes to get the most favored candidate from the military into office.

Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy would have put this strategy into question. The princess’ fame and the influence of the Shinwatras, who are favored in Thailand’s poorer north and northeastern regions, would have been enough to gain a coalition majority in parliament. Furthermore, an election campaign against a member of the royal family would have been very arduous, because traditionally, and according to law, she would have to be respected.

The big puzzle

Despite rumors to that effect in Bangkok, the announcement came as a big surprise, so much so that many international experts and Thai journalists did not know what to make of it. In fact, the deputy prime minister of the military junta refused to publicly take a stand following news of the princess’ political ambitions.

The step was also confusing because it represented a break with the royal Buddhist tradition. The Theravada Buddhism in Thailand stipulates a strict separation of the worldly from the spiritual. Politics, and especially party politics, with its power struggles and machinations, is considered dirty by many believers. Every good Buddhist thus avoids politics. The king, who is also seen as the highest protector of Buddhism, keeps himself out of politics despite the fact that he is an influential factor politically, albeit in the background.

Read more: Thailand king foils sister’s political bid

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (Reuters/A. Perawongmetha)

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha

Position of the royal house

The central questions therefore were: how could one reconcile the princess’ candidacy with the monarchy, and what did King Maha Vajiralongkorn think of it?

The answer to the first question was that the princess, who married an American in 1972 and had to forego her royal status as a result, was not subordinate to the traditional standards of the royal family. With regards to the second question, almost all observes assumed that that kind of step would have had to be discussed with the King. But then on the same evening (Friday), the second bombshell was dropped: at night, a decree from the King said that the engagement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, regardless of type, could not be reconciled with the traditions, customs and culture of their country and were therefore inappropriate.

The nightmare was thus put to an end and the princess withdrew her candidature.

This short episode proves that the internal power struggle in Thailand and the division of the country, which the military government, by its own admission, wanted to finish, still exists. Apparently, the division has also made its way into the royal family, which until now was the guarantor and symbol of national unity. Additionally, King Vajiralongkorn, who will be crowned six weeks after the elections, is undermining his claim to power by promptly and successfully reining in his sister.

Read more: Will Thailand’s military step aside after elections?

Consequences for the election

The vicious circle that has lasted several decades came into light on Friday for one more time. Elections, in which the Thaksin camp wins, are followed by coups. After the coup, conservatives from the royals, officials and the military call for reforms, changing the political system in their favor without giving up the charade of democracy completely. Then there are elections, which Thaksin’s camp can always win with a renamed political party. This time, the military wanted to do better, but the candidacy of the princess would have ruined its plans.

Thaksin continues to be creative when it comes to his own power. However, one has the impression that he has taken too big a risk. The damage for his party’s reputation through this risky maneuver is immense: not because of his core electorate, but because of undecided voters, who he would have needed to reach a majority in the national assembly. Thus, the prospects of the military winning the elections on March 24 are better than they were on Friday.

  • Thaksin Shinawatra (picture alliance/AP Photo)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    A Thai political dynasty with rural support

    Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra is a wealthy businessman and former PM of Thailand. As founder of the Pheu Thai party, he was popular among rural poor, but unpopular among rich elite. In 2006, Thaskin was accused of fraud and ousted in a military coup. He fled Thailand in 2008 and faces two years in jail if he returns. Shinawatra-affiliated parties have won every Thai election since 2001.

  • Thailand Wahlen Puea Thai Yingluck Shinawatra Rothemden Flash-Galerie (dapd)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    Yingluck’s rise into politics

    As successor to her brother, Yingluck Shinawatra was elected as PM of Thailand in 2011. She enjoyed the popularity of Taskin’s base but was also targeted by his opponents, who accused her of being a political proxy for her exiled brother. Before she was elected as Thailand’s first female PM, she had never held a political position or government post.

  • Thailand Reisernte (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    The rice scandal

    Yingluck’s flagship policy, which helped her win the 2011 election, was a rice subsidy program aimed at her base where the government paid poor farmers 50 percent more for rice with the intention of providing a minimum wage. The plan backfired with regional competitors undercutting Thai rice exports, resulting in huge stockpiles and alleged losses to the state of $17 billion (14.25 billion euros).

  • Bangkok Protest 29.03.2014 (Reuters)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    Yingluck thrown out of office

    In May 2014, Yingluck was ousted from office by the Thai constitutional court after it ruled she had abused power in transferring a senior aide to another position. This was combined with months of public protest against a proposed amnesty bill for those involved in violent protests after her brother was forced from power. The Thai military took power and they continue to rule the country.

  • Thailand Bangkok Demonstration Rothemden (AP)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    Yingluck’s supporters wear red

    The “red shirt” protesters, who are loyal to the Shinawatra family, oppose Thailand’s elite, royalist class backed by the military. Yingluck’s supporters see the moves against her as an attempt to finally oust the family from power and eliminate its political influence in Thailand.

  • Thailand Demonstration Gelbhemden Anhänger König Bhumibol Adulyadej (picture-alliance/dpa/N. Sangnak)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    The royal loyalists in yellow

    Loyalists to the Thai royal family, ruling elite and military are known as “yellow shirts.” They say that the Shinawatras abuse their power for their own gain and accuse them of creating populist policies to attract the poor electoral majority in Thai society. They consider this a threat to the traditional ruling class. Multiple clashes between reds and yellows have resulted in dozens of deaths.

  • Thailand Prozess Yingluck Shinawatra (Getty Images/AFP/L. Suwanrumpha)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    Yingluck follows her brother into exile

    In 2015, Yingluck was charged with criminal negligence and dereliction for her role in the failed rice subsidy scheme. She was also impeached for the same charges, and not allowed to participate in Thai politics for five years. She fled Thailand in August 2017, before a ruling on her case was to be announced. In September 2017, she was sentenced, in absentia, to five years in jail.

  • Thailand Anti Regierung Protest Demonstranten (Reuters)

    Yingluck sentencing: The downfall of Thailand’s Shinawatra family

    Thailand’s uncertain future

    Thai politics has been dominated for over a decade by a power struggle between the traditional elite and the Shinawatra family. Political scientist Wolfram Schaffar told DW that the goal of pursuing the Shinawatras has been to “weaken elements of direct democracy.” Other experts say that Yingluck’s exile leaves Thailand without an opposition figure and allows the military to rule indefinitely.

    Author: Wesley Rahn

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