Sister of Thai king named PM candidate by Thaksin-linked party as junta chief Prayut joins race

Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya was the sole prime minister candidate nominated by the Thai Raksa Chart Party on Feb 8, 2019.
PHOTO: Reuters

Thailand's Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya on Friday shocked the kingdom by announcing her candidacy in the country's general election. Her decision to align herself with the powerful Shinawatra clan is an unprecedented move that severely dents the chances of the ruling junta staying in power after the March 24 vote.

The Thai Raksa Chart party, one of several parties aligned with the exiled former prime ministers Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra, said Princess Ubolratana - the older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn - had accepted its invitation to be the party's prime ministerial candidate.

"She has agreed to be our candidate and given her experiences within Thailand and abroad, we believe she is the appropriate candidate," the party's leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters.

He added: "We play by the rules, everything we do complies with the law. There's no privilege or exclusive right."

While she is not a member of the party, the country's newly enacted constitution allows for a prime minister who is not a legislator.

Ubolratana's candidacy could upend the chances of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current junta leader and prime minister, of retaining the prime ministership. He has been named as the candidate of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party and he accepted their offer minutes after the princess declared she would run.

Parties had until Friday to file the names of three potential prime ministerial candidates for the vote, the first since a coup in May 2014 deposed Yingluck.

Ubolratana, 67, is the firstborn child of the late monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2016 after reigning for 70 years. The princess gave up her royal titles in 1972 after she married American Peter Jensen and raised her family in San Diego. The couple divorced in 1998, and Ubolratana moved back to Thailand three years later.

No Thai royal has ever run for political office at the highest level. Under the country's system of constitutional monarchy in place since 1932 - when absolute rule of the sovereign ceased - royals are deified and considered above party politics.

Parties linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, a policeman-turned-telecom tycoon, have triumphed in six elections held since 2001 but are reviled by the country's royalist and urban elite. Their dominance has coincided with a decade of political turmoil in the country. The pro-elite military staged two coups in that period - in 2006 and 2014.

Thaksin Shinawatra was prime minister from 2001 until the first of those two coups in 2006, when he was also barred from politics and began his self-imposed exile. Two years later, he was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for abuse of power - a ruling he said was politically motivated.

His brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat briefly held the same position in 2008, and his sister, Yingluck, was premier from 2011 until the 2014 coup. Yingluck was sentenced to five years in jail last year over a failed rice subsidy scheme while she was prime minister.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.