Last week brought an unprecedented event in the history of Thai politics. Princess Ubolratana was named the Thai Raksa Chart party’s nominee for prime minister, breaking decades of tradition that has kept the monarchy out of politics in Thailand. The same day, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, her younger brother, denounced her candidacy, calling it “inappropriate and unconstitutional.” On Monday, Thailand’s election commission officially removed her from consideration. Nevertheless, her momentary candidacy stirred the pot tremendously, as we explain.
A primer on Thai politics
Thailand has been under military rule since 2014, when a group of army officers, led by Gen. (now Prime Minister) Prayuth Chan-o-cha ousted the elected government, in the second coup in eight years. The main conflict lies between supporters of former prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra and those opposed to him. Thaksin and his party were elected in 2001 and reelected by a landslide in 2005. The first elected prime minister in Thai history to control a legislative majority, Thaksin worked to centralize power and sideline his rivals and critics, while championing policies that many voters found appealing, particularly in the populous but politically and economically neglected north and northeast.
But Thaksin’s efforts challenged Thailand’s traditional power centers, the military and the bureaucracy. Parties and voters in the country’s center and south found themselves at an electoral disadvantage. Thaksin increasingly came into conflict with the monarchy and its supporters. While technically a constitutional monarch, Thailand’s king continues to wield enormous political influence.
The pro- and anti-Thaksin conflict included more than a decade of polarized politics, several rounds of disruptive massive protests, bloody crackdowns on Thaksin supporters in 2010 and two coups, one in 2006 and another in 2014. Pro-Thaksin parties would win elections in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011, only to be ousted by conservative forces via coups or judicial maneuvering. The military and other anti-Thaksin forces claim to be defending the monarchy from Thaksin and his voters. The monarchy has endorsed various efforts to oust Thaksin-allied governments. Once in power, anti-Thaksin forces then aggressively enforce Thailand’s strict lèse majesté laws, which prohibit defamation of, insult to or threat toward the monarchy.
The princess’s announcement was a shock to the polarized system
This year, the military’s direct control appears to be winding down, with elections scheduled for March 24, a contest between the same polarized factions. The princess’s announcement threw things into chaos. Not only was a figure associated with the royal family directly entering electoral politics, something unprecedented in Thai history, but she was affiliating herself with a pro-Thaksin party.
How might her announcement, and the king’s subsequent denouncement, affect the political landscape in Thailand?
The military and prime minister are losers, but the pro-Thaksin parties are winners
The announcement sent a strong signal that at least one faction of the monarchy — and perhaps even the monarchy as a whole — supports pro-Thaksin parties.
Prayuth, as leader of the coup group, has argued that he and the junta are defending the monarchy. He has attacked pro-Thaksin politicians (from arrests and interrogation to shutting down even minor protests and restricting free speech) and attempted to unify Thai society around a vision of a Thai state with the military and monarchy as the unchallenged centers of power. By accepting a nomination to be prime minister, Princess Ubolratana signaled that at least some factions of the royal family are ambivalent about Prayuth. This is likely to harm both his and his party’s — the recently formed, pro-military Phalang Pracharat Party — success in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Second, pro-Thaksin parties are clear beneficiaries — unless the military responds by suspending elections or banning pro-Thaksin parties, as has been rumored. The princess’s candidacy adds credibility to their claims that they, too, support the royal family.
This will probably have electoral consequences
It’s very difficult to know whether this will translate into increased support at the polls for pro-Thaksin parties. Given the lèse majesté laws, researchers have been unable to ask explicit questions about attitudes toward the monarchy, since few, if any, Thai citizens would answer such questions — and those who did would be unlikely to tell the truth.
To tackle this problem, just before the last democratic elections in 2011, we presented a nationally representative sample of about 8,000 Thai voters with descriptions of hypothetical candidates. We told some randomly selected voters that the candidate supported the monarchy; for others, we didn’t mention the monarchy. Respondents saw only the description of a single candidate. We also provided other information, such as party affiliation and regional origin, which was randomly assigned across the hypothetical candidates.
This meant that we could see how support for the monarchy affected support for candidates, without asking people to break lèse majesté laws. We then simply compared average support on a four-point scale (Much More Likely to Support, Somewhat More Likely to Support, Somewhat Less Likely to Support, and Much Less Likely to Support) among the various hypothetical candidates.
Candidates from pro-Thaksin parties benefit most from associating themselves with the monarchy. The princess’s candidacy may therefore counteract Prayuth’s efforts to break down support for Pheu Thai, the pro-Thaksin party that won the last democratic elections. We did not specifically test the effect of the monarchy’s endorsement for a candidate or party. But presumably, if a voter cares whether your party supports the monarchy, she is likely to care more if she thinks that the monarchy also supports your party.
Could anti-Thaksin parties counter by emphasizing association with the monarchy?
Our study reveals that when anti-Thaksin forces espouse support for the monarchy, Thaksin supporters move from “Much Less Likely to Support” toward “Somewhat Less Likely to Support.” But it does not increase support from either their own voters, supporters of other parties, or independents, suggesting that rallying round the king may not make an electoral difference.
Some have interpreted the king’s subsequent prohibition of the princess’s candidacy as evidence that he supports anti-Thaksin parties. But the king’s announcement was politically neutral — and falls far short of explicit support for anti-Thaksin parties.
The princess’s candidacy may have lasted just a day, but its effects will reverberate into the future.
Joel Selway is associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and author of Coalitions of the Well-being: How Electoral Rules and Ethnic Politics Shape Health Policy in Developing Countries (Cambridge University Press, 2015).