QUEENSLAND: Two weeks ago, the Thai Raksa Chart, a Thai political party aligned with exiled, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, made the bombshell announcement that it was nominating King Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister, Ubolratana, as its candidate for prime minister.
Late that same night, the King issued a royal command, almost as explosive, effectively forbidding the nomination.
To understand the extraordinary events, some historical context is helpful.
AN OPENING UP SINCE 1973
At the risk of generalisation, Thailand’s political history since the student uprisings of October 1973 has moved in the direction of opening up the political system to mass political participation through elections, political parties and the parliament.
That opening has been resisted by what Fred Riggs called the “bureaucratic polity”: Thailand’s powerful, sprawling bureaucracy. The military can be understood as the armed wing of this bureaucratic polity, while the monarchy under King Bhumibol lent it enormous legitimacy.
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Despite stuttering steps towards democratisation, the bureaucratic polity and military have always been able to adjust their modus operandi and continue to run the country, more or less.
The middle class and big business, a product of rapid economic growth since the 1960s, have for the most part been happy to go along with this arrangement, especially after pro-democracy protests in the early 1990s gave them a greater say in the political system.
RISE OF THE RURAL AND URBAN WORKING CLASS
What has changed in recent decades is the economic empowerment of the rural and urban working class. Like the middle class before them, they now seek greater political representation.
Cue the rise of Thaksin. His political parties have helped to mobilise the rural and urban working classes politically.
That mobilisation poses a threat not only to the bureaucratic polity’s domination, but also to a certain conception that its members and supporters hold of their own identity and of what Thailand means as a country.
This helps to explain the visceral hatred Thaksin’s enemies have for him. The military, with palace backing, has responded to this threat with coups in 2006 and 2014 and the current military dictatorship.
A KING’S PASSING, A BREAKING DOWN OF CONSENSUS
In the midst of this crisis, King Bhumibol passed away after 70 years on the throne. The charismatic, popular Bhumibol was a brilliant asset to the bureaucratic polity, since he enabled it to effectively compete with democratically elected politicians.
Kasian Tejapira has argued that the “hegemonic” role played by the monarchy during this period helped the Thai elite create what he calls the Bhumibol Consensus.
That consensus is now breaking down. Unlike his father, King Vajiralongkorn is deeply unpopular, headstrong and capricious. This poses an enormous problem for the bureaucratic polity.
Under the military junta that seized power in 2014, the alliance between the bureaucratic polity and the monarchy appeared to hold firm. In fact, the King has enhanced his control — over the military, the Crown Property Bureau, the Privy Council, the Royal Household and the Buddhist Sangha.
The military regime has given him everything he wanted. It even allowed him to change the constitution after the draft had already been passed in a referendum.
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THE UPCOMING ELECTIONS A TEST
But the one thing the King lacks is popularity, especially among ardent royalists who loved his father. Thaksin, on the other hand, despite enemies (on both sides) easily remains Thailand’s most popular politician.
The imminent change to a civilian government after national elections scheduled for Mar 24 was thus a test for the monarchy under the new king. How would it operate without being able to rely on the rigid control of a military dictatorship?
In the run-up to elections the pro-Thaksin parties were campaigning strongly. It was quite possible that they would again take the largest number of seats in the new parliament.
By contrast, the leader of the military junta General Prayut Chan-o-cha is deeply unpopular, apart from among hardline anti-Thaksinites. Campaigning by the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party has been lacklustre.
The possibility of the election producing yet another Thaksin-dominated parliament may help to explain Thai Raksa Chart’s nomination of Ubolratana as a prime ministerial candidate.
For Thaksin, her nomination, given her closeness to the King, would have provided a guarantee against the regime once again banning his political parties. For the King, this arrangement would have given him direct influence over a Thaksin-controlled government were the pro-military party to fail to win the election.
There has been much speculation as to why the King issued the strongly worded royal command late at night on the same day as Thai Raksa Chart’s announcement, effectively forbidding his sister to nominate.
It seems inconceivable that the King did not give the green light to Ubolratana’s nomination. It is well known that he is close to his older sister. Rumours of her nomination had been swirling for days.
If the King had wanted to end it, he could have done so well before the official announcement. And Thaksin would hardly have risked alienating the King by carrying out such a momentous political move "behind his back".
So how to explain the sudden reversal?
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Soon after the announcement of Ubolratana’s nomination, royalist social media exploded with criticism of the decision. Reportedly there was bitter criticism on some sites that she had “betrayed her father”.
Within hours Paiboon Nititawan, a well-known conservative and leader of one of the pro-military parties, lodged a request demanding that the Electoral Commission order Thak Raksa Chart to withdraw the nomination. The fiery ultra-conservative and minor royal Chulcherm Yugala also expressed his opposition to the nomination on his popular Facebook page.
Ubolratana’s nomination suggested a deal had been done between Thaksin and the King, which would have effectively constituted an alignment of the monarchy with the pro-Thaksin forces. This would have meant that Thaksin was on his way to winning the political battle with the conservative establishment, now in its 13th year.
The momentous significance of Ubolratana’s candidature means that it is possible that the conservative backlash against the decision was so strong that the King was advised to back down — for the time being.
FISSURES BETWEEN THE KING AND CONSERVATIVE ELEMENTS
The fallout from this extraordinary turn of events is that Thailand’s monarchy has become further politicised.
As if it weren’t enough for the monarchy to be unpopular among many pro-democracy supporters and republicans, these events appear to have exposed fissures between King Vajiralongkorn and Thailand’s conservative establishment, and perhaps even with sections of the military.
The underlying political problem remains: A conservative establishment that refuses to open up the political system to the broader participation of the Thai people. This problem is compounded by a deeply unpopular king whose relationship to Thailand’s royalists is, ironically, now also in question.
The current situation is unstable and unpredictable. Thailand’s torturous political crisis continues.
Patrick Jory is currently Visiting Research Scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University and Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland. This commentary first appeared in East Asia Forum.