BANGKOK: The announcement that Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya will run for office under a party linked to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a bold gambit by the veteran politician as he seeks a return to politics, say analysts.
The princess, 67, broke the long-standing tradition of Thai royalty staying out of politics, agreeing on Friday (Feb 8) to run for prime minister under the banner of the Thai Raksa Chart Party.
However, it is far from guaranteed that Thaksin’s gambit will pay off, the analysts added.
Dr Michael Montesano, a visiting senior fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute noted that the princess’ entry into politics “seems to be an exercise in signalling a possible rapprochement between Thaksin and the palace”.
“The audaciousness of this gambit, means that we must be attentive to the possibility of a backlash among members of the public," Dr Montesano told Channel NewsAsia.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute added: “Undoubtedly this is a very bold gameplay by Thaksin."
But it could backfire on the former prime minister, he said.
“He is now practically making use of someone who is still very close to the monarchy for his own political manoeuvring to outsmart General Prayuth and his junta NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order).”
The princess is set for an election showdown with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is running under the pro-military Phalang Pracharat Party.
READ: Commentary - General Prayuth’s dream of remaining PM dampens Thailand’s hopes of starting afresh
In explaining the choice of Princess Ubolratana as its prime minister candidate, the Thai Raksa Chart Party noted that although she had given up her royal title in the 1970s, she has been active in charity work since relocating back to Thailand in 2001.
The Thai Raksa Chart, an off-shoot of the Pheu Thai Party formed by Thaksin loyalists, added: “She wishes to take part in lifting Thais out of poverty and giving them good futures."
The upcoming vote on March 24 is the first general election in Thailand since a military coup led by Prayuth ousted the administration of democratically elected former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister.
Both of them now live in self-imposed exile to avoid legal prosecution in Thailand.
The Thai political landscape has been divided between the royalist-military establishment and the populist “red shirts” linked to Thaksin.
Simmering conflict between the two camps has resulted in street protests, military coups and violent clashes for more than a decade.
Will the princess be able to garner support from both camps?
“Her close ties to Thaksin Shinawatra and family are an open secret. This is a minus as far as most royalists are concerned,” said Dr Termsak.
The Thai Raksa Chart Party is full of red shirts leaders, he noted, adding that many of them were not so friendly to the monarchy towards the end of the reign of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
In 1972, Princess Ubolratana, who is the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, gave up her royal title after marrying American commoner Peter Ladd Jensen.
The couple has two children, Ploypailin Jensen and Sirikitiya Jensen; a third child, Bhumi Jensen, died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
They lived together in the United States until 1998, when Princess Ubolratana divorced Jensen and, in 2001, relocated to Thailand.
Among the royals, she has not been particularly outspoken on policy issues. Her younger sister, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, serves as the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation Special Ambassador for Zero Hunger, and campaigns about hunger and malnutrition.
Meanwhile, it is not immediately clear if Princess Ubolratana would be covered under Thailand’s hardline defamation law on criticising royals - which carries up to 15 years in jail per charge - or how that could impact debate and criticism in the run up to elections.
"It is unprecedented if she becomes prime minister," said Puangthong Pawakapan, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University.
"Can people treat her like a commoner? Who would dare criticise a royal prime minister?"