Thai Princess Ubolratana Upends Election With Challenge to Junta Leader


The oldest sister of Thailand’s king agreed to run for the post of prime minister in elections next month, redrawing the country’s political map in a stunning assertion of royal power and upending the ruling junta’s plans to legitimize itself through a democratic vote.

The Thai Raksa Chart Party’s move to select 67-year-old Princess Ubolratana caught many Thais by surprise. It aligns the princess, and by extension the royal family, with the populist political movement led by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which has won every election in the Buddhist kingdom since 2001 and is bitterly opposed by many royalists.

The princess’s candidacy is a significant blow to the military junta that currently governs the country.

The generals seized power in 2014 to preserve the influence of the monarchy to which they had been closely allied. But after King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun succeeded his father in 2016, he has taken a more assertive role, searching out new political partners and expanding his own authority, often at the expense of the junta.

Among other things, the new king has ordered changes in the constitution to give him the power to settle disputes between commoners, and cultivated a new corps of military commanders. He has also taken sole control of the estimated $40 billion royal fortune held through the Crown Property Bureau, much of which is tied up in landholdings and shares.

Political analysts said his sister’s decision to contest the elections is an additional sign that the king is willing to interfere with the junta’s plans to transform its old guard into an elected government. It is almost inconceivable, they say, that Princess Ubolratana would agree to be a candidate without the king’s support.

“She could not and would not have done this without her brother’s approval,” said Paul Chambers, a professor at Naresuan University in Thailand and expert on the country’s political system. “Clearly Thaksin favored this as well.”

In a post on her Instagram account, Princess Ubolratana explained that she relinquished her formal titles when she married an American in 1972 and is thus eligible to run as an ordinary citizen despite being regarded as a member of the royal family. She also thanked well-wishers for their support and said she is willing to make sacrifices for the country’s prosperity.

The developments mark an astonishing realignment after years of often-violent conflict in the country, an important U.S. ally.

The Thai army ousted Mr. Thaksin in a coup in 2006 and deposed the government of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2014. The tycoon’s family had won support among the urban poor and rural Thais with spending on poverty alleviation but alienated the wealthier, urban bureaucratic and military establishment. Many joined mass pro-democracy protests in Bangkok in 2010, which quickly spiraled out of control, resulting in security forces shooting dead more than 90 demonstrators.

Since the 2014 coup, order has largely been restored but military rule has crimped growth and deterred investment at a time when new rivals such as Vietnam have emerged. A recent Credit Suisse survey found that Thailand had become the world’s most unequal country, with its richest 1% owning more than two-thirds of its wealth.

Still, supporters of the Shinawatras have faced a difficult path back to power. Both Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck live overseas to avoid imprisonment on corruption charges they say are politically motivated.

The constitution drafted by the junta, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, also gives an army-appointed senate a say in who becomes the new prime minister after the March 24 vote. Gen. Prayuth had been seen as one of the leading candidates.

But by nominating the princess to become prime minister, the Thaksin-backed opposition Thai Raksa Chart Party has changed the game. It would be harder for rival candidates to campaign against her because of her royal status; senior members of the monarchy are protected by a lèse-majesté law that makes it a crime to insult or criticize them, though it wouldn’t necessarily apply to Princess Ubolratana. The junta would also find it more difficult to pressure Princess Ubolratana to follow its restrictive constitution, in which the army retains the right to unseat any government it doesn’t like.

Junta officials said they had no comment on Friday’s developments.

The princess’s election, if it happens, might also pave the way for Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck to return to Thailand through an amnesty or royal pardon, analysts say. Ultimately, Mr. Thaksin might be able to reclaim some $1.4 billion in assets that a previous government confiscated in 2010.

Princess Ubolratana has often displayed her willingness to break with the conventions of royal life.

After studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she married a fellow student and lived in the U.S. for 26 years before returning to Thailand in 2001 after she and her husband divorced.

One of her three children was killed in the tsunami that struck Thailand and several other countries around the Indian Ocean in 2004.

More recently, Princess Ubolratana has emerged as a popular figure on social media in Thailand. Recently she posed in a picture as a taxi driver she uploaded to Instagram, saying she was out of work and looking for a new job. She has also performed songs to publicize an antidrug charity and acted in several movies, though it is unclear how well her fame will translate into votes. Some of Mr. Thaksin’s supporters, known as the Red Shirts, already are grumbling privately about being represented by a privileged member of the royal family.

Significantly, Princess Ubolratana also struck up a rapport with Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck.

Last year, the princess attended the soccer World Cup with Mr. Thaksin and Ms. Yingluck in Russia. The three were photographed together at one of the games, beaming.

Mr. Thaksin couldn’t be reached for comment on Princess Ubolratana’s new role, though he has long tried to foster a relationship with King Vajiralongkorn and his family. The Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters Friday that she was chosen as the party’s candidate because of her record of charity work and experience living and traveling overseas.

Friday’s royal intervention, though, may shift the balance of power firmly in Mr. Thaksin’s direction. But it isn’t without its risks. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former diplomat who is now a professor at Kyoto University in Japan, said that by entering the political scene so directly, the monarchy too could become vulnerable to any future upheavals.