The ex-general who’s running the government, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, is standing for election as the candidate of a pro-army political party so that he can keep his position. So he made sure that the rules were fixed to give him every advantage.
It was still possible, technically, for an opposition party to win power, but it would take a miracle.
Then, on Friday, a miracle arrived. One of the opposition parties announced their candidate for the prime ministership. They named the king’s big sister. All Thailand was thunderstruck.
Although she renounced her title as a princess in 1972 in order to marry a foreigner and live in the US, Ubolratana Rajakanya, nicknamed The Doll, is still treated as if she were one.
She’s an actor and singer and philanthropist but when she appears on Thai TV variety shows, others on the set kneel in deference.
“Judged by her treatment, she’s an actual princess,” says Nicholas Farrelly, an ANU expert on South-East Asia, “but she’s also something of an outlier. In her 18 years back in the kingdom she’s maintained a certain outrageousness and earthiness.
“She’s in quite a unique position – in the royal family, then outside the royal family, then back in the royal family.” She made several attempts at formal readmission to the title of princess but was rebuffed. She is addressed as “daughter of the queen regent” but often refers to herself as a commoner.
The stylish 67-year-old has degrees from prestigious US universities in maths and public health, and she’s a competent sailor, but her biggest electoral asset is her standing with the people.
Ubolratana once joked on TV that she doesn’t enjoy the traditional “Long live your highness,” and she’d prefer if people said, “Long may you be slender”.
She is not only respected as a part of the royal family, she is wildly popular. “She is perhaps,” says Paul Chambers of Thailand’s Naresuan University writing for New Mandala, “the only person who could clearly upstage [Prime Minister] Prayut in the polls, especially since the junta controls the election machinery”.
After her announcement as candidate, Ubolratana wrote on a social media account: “I have already relinquished all royal titles, and I am living as a commoner. Therefore, I’d like to exercise my rights and freedom as a commoner under the constitution and the law.”
The full significance of her declaration was not simply that a close member of the royal family was entering politics for the first time in Thailand’s 86 years as a constitutional monarchy.
It was the forces she chose to represent. The party nominating her is one of four affiliated with the most electorally successful politician modern Thailand has known, the billionaire former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
It was Thaksin, the hero of Thailand’s rural poor, whom the military drove from power. Thaksin, now living abroad to avoid jail, was judged too dangerous to the Thai business, military and aristocratic elites. And the army acted with the support of the then monarch, Bhumibol.
The former princess was siding with Thaksin, the mortal enemy of what Farrelly calls the “military-royalist nexus”. She was not challenging convention by standing, she was challenging the establishment itself. It was a move so audacious and so potent that “it almost beggars belief” in Farrelly’s words.
What would her younger brother, the king, have to say? We didn’t have to wait long to find out. Later the same day, Vajiralongkorn issued a proclamation in the royal gazette, read that night on all Thai TV stations.
He said it was “highly inappropriate” for a member of the royal family to be involved in politics and violated tradition. But what’s “inappropriate” is not necessarily illegal. The king went on to rule on the legality. He called the move “unconstitutional”.
Deferring to the king’s quasi-mystical status, the opposition party that had nominated her duly withdrew Ubolratana’s nomination.
Vajiralongkorn might have studied at Australia’s Royal Military College, Duntroon, from 1972-75, but he doesn’t seem to quite comprehend the meaning of “constitutional monarchy”.
A constitutional monarch is not someone who is supposed to decide the constitution – that’s what the courts and, in Thailand’s case, the Constitutional Commission – are for. A constitutional monarch is one whose power is limited by scrupulous adherence to the constitution.
Instead, he intervened unilaterally to veto his sister and, in doing so, he vetoed Thaksin, likely guaranteeing that the military will keep control after the election.
As Paul Chambers points out: “Had Ubolratana become prime minister, her new legal powers as head of government would have provided her with some means of giving orders to certain security forces. Such powers might have clashed with the preferences of the current royal potentate. The message is clear….there is room in Thailand for only one leading regal personality – the sovereign himself”.
ANU’s Farrelly says that’s not likely the end of the drama. “The Thaksin-inspired electoral juggernaut” that is the main opposition “will likely remain Thailand’s most formidable force for as long as he chooses to remain involved. I think more surprises lie ahead.”
Peter Hartcher is international editor.
Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.