“The Princess Gambit Debacle in Thailand” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/17, 13 February 2019

As widely expected, Thailand’s Election Commission on 11 February excluded Princess Ubolratana from its list of 69 qualified candidates for the premiership proposed by 45 parties due to contest the country’s 24 March elections.
The decision of Princess Ubolratana – the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn – to accept the nomination of the Thai Raksa Chat Party as its candidate for the premiership is a matter of puzzlement and intrigue.

Her brother the King’s objection to the princess’s unconventional and unconstitutional entry into national politics in Thailand was direct and precise. In a special television broadcast late in the evening of 8 February, less than 14 hours after Thai Raksa Chat submitted to the Election Commission its nomination of the princess, an order from the King stated  that “Any attempt to involve a high-level member of the Royal Family in the political process by whatever means would be tantamount to breaching time-honoured royal traditions, customs and national culture. Such action must be deemed transgression and most inappropriate. …”, according to an unofficial translation posted on the Web-site of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The princess may have relinquished her royal title in 1972, but she cannot change the fact that she was born a princess and has remained in the hearts and minds of Thai people a revered and well-loved senior member of the Royal Family.

One crucial question remains unanswered. Who was the mastermind behind this daring princess gambit?
No one in the leadership of the Thai Raksa Chat Party has the political clout and connections necessary to reach out to the princess, let alone to persuade her to go with such an unconventional move. In fact, it is now doubtful whether the party leadership actually made its own decision to name the princess as its candidate.

One of the 14 members of Thai Raksa Chat’s executive committee, Dr Roong-rerng Pittayasiri, informed the Election Commission on 11 February of his resignation from that committee on the morning of 4 February, the very same day that Princess Ubolratana signed a form consenting to her nomination as the party’s candidate for prime minister. Roong-rerng claimed that he did not have any part in the nomination of the princess.

Thai Raksa Chat is widely seen as an “offspring” of the Phuea Thai Party. Several of its prime movers came from Pheua Thai, including party leader Lt Preechapol Pongpanich — previously Phuea Thai’s deputy party spokesman. His father Sermsak Pongpanich was deputy interior minister in Thaksin Shinawatra’s cabinet in 2005, and deputy education minister in Yingluck Shinawatra’s government during 2012-2014. Thai Raksa Chat’s chief strategist is Chaturon Chaisaeng, education minister in the Yingluck government.
Accusing fingers are now, therefore, pointing at Thaksin.

The former prime minister fled the country in 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term imposed after the coup that toppled his government in September 2006.  At least four criminal charges against him are still pending in court, awaiting his return.   As a fugitive, he has been disqualified from political activities in Thailand.

It is an open secret that Thaksin and his family have friendly ties to Princess Ubolratana. Last July Thaksin, Yingluck and the princess were photographed sitting together at a World Cup football match in Moscow.

In the 2011 general election, Phuea Thai beat the Democrat Party with the catchy slogan “Thaksin thinks, Yingluck acts!” This election victory ushered into the premiership Yingluck as the first female prime minister of the country. Her coalition government tried but failed to ram through the parliament a controversial amnesty bill designed to enable Thaksin to return to Thailand with impunity.

After the coup against the Phuea Thai-led government in May 2014, Yingluck was charged with dereliction of duty for failing to stop widespread corruption in her government’s rice scheme. She fled the country in August 2017, before her conviction in that case was announced.  She was subsequently sentenced in absentia to five years’ imprisonment.
Even before this princess gambit, Thaksin and to a lesser degree Yingluck had long been accused of manipulating Phuea Thai and its “offspring” parties, including the That Raksa Chat Party.

The influence and popularity of Thaksin and Yingluck among voters in the Northeast and the North are well-known. This has led 15 candidates running under the Phuea Chat Party — another “offspring” party —   in eight provinces in these two regions to change their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck. To these candidates, Thaksin and Yingluck have strong name recognition — better than that of their new party, which was formed just a few months ago by Thaksin supporters led by Yongyuth Tiyapairatch and Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan.

The Election Commission will now face growing pressure to investigate Thaksin’s unlawful connection to these parties. The political party law prohibits parties’ yielding their independence to the control or manipulation of any non-member.  The law also prohibits non-members from interfering in any party’s affairs. If enough evidence is found, the Election Commission can file a case against the Thai Raksa Chat Party in the Constitutional Court.

Further, rule No. 17 of the rules governing election campaigns prohibits involving the monarchy in the campaign of any candidate, any political party, or anyone else. The political party law also prohibits undertaking any action that goes against the Thai political system of constitutional democracy with the monarch as head of state. Violation is punishable by dissolution of the party in question and suspension of the party’s executive committee members from all political activities for ten years.

Dissolution of Thai Raksa Chat would disqualify all of its candidates in the 24 March polls. It has named 150 parliamentary candidates in constituency-level races and a party-list slate of 120 persons. Their disqualification would be a setback not only for their party but also for the pro-Thaksin camp as a whole.

Phuea Thai and Thai Raksa Chat have tried to avoid undercutting each other in many constituencies so that either party can enjoy undivided support from pro-Thaksin voters wherever it contests seats.

Phuea Thai is widely recognized as one of the top three parties in the upcoming 24 March polls. The other two are Democrat Party and Phalang Pracharat Party; the latter is supporting incumbent Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha in his effort to retain the premiership.

However, for the first time, Phuea Thai will not compete in all available election constituencies.  It has fielded candidates in only 250 of the 350 constituencies. In Bangkok, Phuea Thai is contesting only 22 of 30 constituencies, while Thai Raksa Chat is fielding candidates is in the other eight constituencies and in 142 other constituencies. This at first seemed like a sensible division-of-labour strategy for the Phuea Thai – Thai Raksa Chat tag-team.

Unfortunately, if the latter party is eventually dissolved, several million votes that Phuea Thai intended to gift to Thai Raksa Chat’s candidates by staying out of the 100 constituencies will be wasted.

Should the Constitutional Court find evidence indicating that he was the mastermind behind Princess Ubolratana’s decision to run for prime minister, this would be even more damaging for Thaksin.

On 9 February Thaksin transmitted a post via his Twitter account @ThaksinLive urging all his supporters to “Chin up and keep moving forward. …” and “Cheer up. Life must go on.”

Thaksin himself now has one less reason to cheer himself up. His bold but unorthodox princess gambit has failed miserably.

After over a decade in exile overseas, his quest to return to Thailand with impunity remains a fading dream.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Lead Researcher for Political and Security Affairs in the ASEAN Studies Centre, and a member of the Thailand Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.