SINGAPORE: The Thailand Constitutional Court’s decision on Thursday (Mar 7) to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chat Party surprised only a few people in the country.
Just a month ago, the party shocked the entire Thai nation with its nomination of 67-year-old Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of King Vajiralongkorn, as its candidate for the premiership in the general elections scheduled for Mar 24.
It contended that the princess had become a “commoner”, having relinquished her royal title in 1972 before she married an American, and should therefore have the right to try her hand in politics.
But her move into politics raised many questions: Was the princess leading a political upheaval to uproot the military from national politics in accepting the nomination?
The Thai Raksa Chat Party has close ties to fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Pheu Thai Party, so some could not help but wonder if Thaksin was using the princess as yet another political pawn in his effort to regain power, as he did with his youngest sister Yingluck.
In the 2011 elections, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party triumphed in the polls and formed a coalition government with Yingluck as prime minister, making her Thailand’s first female head of government.
In May 2014, however, her government was toppled in a coup led by Thailand’s current Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who was the army chief at the time. Yingluck was subsequently charged with dereliction of duty for failing to stop widespread corruption in her government’s rice price schemes.
She insisted on her innocence till the end of the trial. But, a few days before the verdict was read, she slipped out of the country and joined her elder brother Thaksin in exile in Dubai. On Aug 25, 2017 Yingluck was sentenced in absentia to a jail term of five years.
Still, the question on everyone’s minds remained: If Princess Ubolratana were to become prime minister, could she accept government leadership accountability, as Yingluck had to?
STILL A PRINCESS
Although the princess had relinquished her royal title decades ago, she resumed some royal duties when she returned to Thailand for good after her divorce in 1998.
She resides in Borom Phiman Royal Mansion inside the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok. And, in the hearts and minds of most Thais, she has unquestionably remained the revered eldest daughter of the late King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit.
Thai people still sit on the floor in her presence and converse with her in royal court language, trying to be as respectful as possible when meeting her in public. This was why the Thai Raksa Chat Party’s move to nominate her for a political role was shocking.
ENDING THE UTTER CONFUSION
Half an hour after the nomination of the princess was made public, her rival, Prayut announced his acceptance of the nomination of the Phalang Pracharat Party as candidate for the premiership. Utter confusion followed.
Fortunately, the ominous clouds of confusion quickly lifted later in the same day. In a royal announcement read on Thailand’s national television shortly before midnight on Feb 8, the King raised objections to the nomination of his elder sister, deeming it a “transgression and most inappropriate”.
The announcement reiterated that the rules and conventions of constitutional monarchy required that the monarch and all members of the royal family “be above politics and politically neutral”.
The Thai Raksa Chat Party’s nomination of the princess was deemed an undertaking which could be “hostile” to the democratic system of constitutional monarchy with the monarch as head of state. This led to the guilty verdict that ordered its immediate dissolution.
All of its candidates — 175 in electoral constituencies and 108 on its party list — are out of the polls. All members of its executive committee, including a niece and a nephew of Thaksin, will also be banned from politics for 10 years.
A BLOW TO THAKSIN, BUT A WINDFALL FOR OTHERS
Losing the Thai Raksa Chat Party is doubly painful for Thaksin. His Pheu Thai Party is not contesting 100 of the 350 electoral constituencies that was left to its “offspring parties” led by the Thai Raksa Chat.
Contesting in those 100 constituencies, could have allowed Pheu Thai candidates to easily collect at least 2 million votes and win an additional 20 to 25 seats in parliament.
Understandably, Thaksin wanted to avoid putting all of his political eggs in the Pheu Thai basket. The first two political parties that he founded, Thai Rak Thai and Phalang Prachachon, were both dissolved for election wrong-doing, and the Pheu Thai could be next on the chopping block.
To play it safe, many senior Pheu Thai members fanned out to form or run new “offspring parties”, including the Thai Raksa Chat. Should Pheu Thai be dissolved, there would still be several other “offspring parties” remaining in the race.
The sudden demise of the Thai Raksa Chat Party however is a windfall for three other parties that have branded themselves as “new choices” for voters fed up with the struggle between Thaksin’s Pheu Thai on the one hand and Prayut and the military on the other.
Most prominent among these three is Thailand’s oldest party, the Democrats, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The party was the opposition leader during the Yingluck administration, after coming second in the 2011 general elections. It is still trailing in third place in various opinion surveys, after Pheu Thai and Phalang Pracharat.
The two other parties that could capture significant swing votes are the Future Forward Party and the Thai Liberal Party. These two new parties usually come fourth or fifth in various opinion surveys.
Both also tend to see eye-to-eye with Pheu Thai in matters concerning military interference in national politics.
However, a possible Pheu Thai-led coalition may not even have the 376 votes to form the minimum possible majority in a joint sitting of the 500-member House and the 250-member Senate needed to win the premiership for its candidate.
The military government will submit 250 names for royal appointment to the Senate, and senators are expected to vote for Prayut. Phalang Pracharat thus needs to secure just 126 votes in the House to support Prayut and win the premiership for him.
But the Phalang Pracharat Party alone may not be able to garner 126 House seats and would need more help from other parties, particularly the Democrats, whose support, if forthcoming, can get Prayut the premiership, and lead a new coalition government after the polls.
READ: The return of Prayut as prime minister almost certain when Thais head to polls in March, a commentary
Undoubtedly there will be a vehement public outcry if the 250 appointed senators vote en bloc for Prayut. But it is highly unlikely that anyone or any party would want to organise street protests any time soon. Thais want to see peace and order until after the coronation of King Vajiralongkorn, scheduled for May 4 to 6.
After the historic ceremony, however, chaos will break out. Paralysis in the legislature looks inevitable.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a member of the Thailand Studies Programme and Lead Researcher (Political and Security Affairs) ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.