THE PLAN was too bold. On the morning of February 8th the Thai Raksa Chart party surprised the world. It submitted just one name to the Election Commission to run as its candidate for the office of prime minister: Princess Ubolratana. The likely outcome of an election slated for March 24th seemed to change in an instant. Scheming by the ruling military junta to sway the contest in its favour appeared thwarted. The princess would carry all before her. But that evening her brother, King Vajiralongkorn, intervened publicly and damningly. He declared his sister’s decision to run for office as “inappropriate” and “unconstitutional”. The party fell into line on February 9th. “Thai Raksa Chart party complies with the royal command with loyalty to the king and all members of the royal family,” it declared.
The assumption when the princess’s candidacy emerged was that the palace must have accepted her plans. How else could she have dared to become a candidate? Thailand reveres its monarchy and the king wields huge influence, partly thanks to the enormous popularity of his father. Harsh laws also govern what can be said about the palace’s inhabitants. The princess’s candidacy led to speculation that the royal family had concocted a plan to unite the two warring factions of Thai politics and thus end the 13-year-old feud that has riven the country. Royalist and military elites, known as “yellow shirts”, have battled “red shirts”, acolytes of Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist former prime minister, since 2006, when the army deposed Mr Thaksin in a coup. To have a royal lead a party linked to Mr Thaksin, such as Thai Raksa Chart, held out the prospect of bridging the divide.
But it was not to be. Indeed, by kiboshing his sister’s initiative, King Vajiralongkorn may deepen Thailand’s polarisation. How things got this far is a bit of a mystery. Whether or not he knew his sister’s intentions beforehand may never be clear. On the eve of Thai Raksa Chart’s announcement, with rumours of the princess’s candidacy swirling, prominent royalists were still denouncing the idea as “nonsense”.
The royal family is supposed to be above politics, but the princess could claim that she is not a royal. After marrying an American (whom she later divorced) she lost her royal title in 1972. In an Instagram post put up mere hours after her candidacy was revealed, she stated that she considered herself to be “exercising her rights and freedoms as a commoner”.
But her diamond earrings and shining black jacket did make her look a little above the ordinary. She still attends royal functions and receives regal treatment from the government and press. Her brother, for one, does not accept the idea she is just an ordinary citizen. His statement declared that as she is “part of the Chakri dynasty” she is still a member of the royal family and so must stay out of politics.
Amid the uproar the generals continued with their programme to stage-manage the election. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister installed after a coup in 2014, has dodged questions about his political future for months. His intentions were clear, however. Official visits around the country have been used as a vehicle for campaigning for months. Palang Pracharat, a party which backs the junta, has put Mr Prayuth forward as a candidate for prime minister; he accepted the nomination shortly after the princess’s candidacy emerged on February 8th. For several hours the move seemed forlorn. Now he is back in the running in a process he has rigged in his own favour.
The generals have introduced a constitution which weakens large parties and laws which restrict campaigning. Writing the rulebook is a huge advantage. Already a party supportive of the regime has asked the Election Commission—a body installed by the regime—to judge whether Thai Raksa Chart violated the country’s election law by inviting the princess to run as its candidate. (One of its sections bars parties from using the monarchy in campaigns.) In addition, the commission must decide by February 15th to endorse or reject candidates put forward by parties in the past week.
The princess’s short-lived political foray appears over. Mr Thaksin is notorious for his pre-election surprises. His royal one was a step too far. Even if Thai Raksa Chart is disbanded for its role, Pheu Thai, another party with ties to Mr Thaksin, remains in the race. The only thing the episode appears to have achieved is to heighten the tension between Pheu Thai and the parties backing the junta. Once again, red and yellow are at daggers drawn.