Foreign Affairs

A Royal Mess

While most of us will say our experience with a monarchy is limited to Game of Thrones, royalty still commands much of the world. Despite a disappointing lack of dragons (perhaps some nagas were involved), Thailand’s politics have been rocked by its crown for the past month ever since the older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, attempted to run for the office of prime minister in the March 24 general election. The King himself called the candidacy “inappropriate” and “unconstitutional” after she announced her decision on February 8th, foreshadowing the eventual disqualification of her candidacy on February 13.

Ubolratana’s bid broke with the tradition of members of the royal family staying out of politics. The move was especially controversial because she ran with the Thai Raksa Chart Party. Their members are loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 military coup, and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was also ousted in a 2014 military coup.

Royalists and establishment politicians, mainly urban and middle-class loyalists to the monarchy, have clashed with Thaksin’s supporters for nearly two decades. In 2006, amidst protests against Thaksin over corruption and tax evasion charges, the military seized control of the government to protect the monarchy. Since then, allies of Thaksin have continued to have a strong presence, including through winning national elections, due to his popularity with the rural majority in part because of policies like universal healthcare. Regular military crackdowns against them keep politics tense and unstable.

Ubolratana would have brought royal legitimacy to the Thai Raksa Chart Party and therefore to Thaksin. Her election would have ended the military and loyalists’ sole association with the monarchy. The re-election of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the current military government leader, would have been endangered, and another coup against a Thaksin-backed government could have occurred.

There is a reason the Thai royal family stays out of politics. Many monarchies around the world, such as the British monarch, remain politically neutral to better represent their whole kingdoms and be as inclusive as possible. The Thai royals especially adhere to this rule as they are beloved and seen as semi-divine, and thus have great influence over the Thai people. Thai law enshrines the importance of the royal family and shields its members from the dirty world of politics. Ubolratana’s candidacy circumvented this protection and challenged Thai norms.

For example, a lese majeste law punishes insulting the royal family with up to 15 years in prison. Despite the United Nations condemning the law as a violation of free speech, it has been strictly enforced by Thai authorities. It would be hard for a candidate to run a campaign against a royal without “insulting” them. Ubolratana relinquished her royal title in 1972 when she married an American, and therefore claims she ran as a commoner. However, she is still treated like a princess by the rest of the country, so the lese majeste law would still apply.

Moreover, election laws ban political candidates and campaigns from using the monarchy to garner support. Any campaign backed by a royal would be inherently and unfairly favored. If a royal herself ran, the appearance of unfairness would exponentially increase. Ubolratana’s campaign could have elicited over-caution and self-censorship among voters who supported opposing campaigns. To try to remedy this, the Thai Raksa Chart Party promised not to use Ubolratana’s photos in her campaign. This obviously would have been impractical and would not have dissuaded bias toward her position in the royal family.

Thanks to the Thai monarchy’s unique role in everyday life, Ubolratana’s bid would have caused chaos at a time when peace between opposing parties is needed more than ever. Many voters hope this year’s election will end the military rule over the country that has been in place since the 2014 coup. With free elections including all voices, the political divisiveness and censorship that the Thai people have suffered through could have ended. However, Ubolratana reignited the divisions in Thai politics through her empowerment of Thaksin-supporting opposition voices.

The Election Commission, due to pressure from the King and the military junta, officially disqualified Ubolratana from the election. They are additionally considering asking a constitutional court to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chart Party due to the perceived violation of electoral law. If it does, Prime Minister Prayuth will most likely be re-elected, and the military-backed government will hold onto power. The Pheu Thai Party, the main Thaksin-affiliated party, may still contest Prime Minister Prayuth if it can survive its ally’s fate. Either way, unrest and protests against the military government are likely.

Since her disqualification, Ubolratana has apologized for the problems her candidacy caused. The election she has left is now more uncertain than before due to her royal interference. The already highly contested race was only complicated by her adding the untouchable monarchy into the mix.

Thai politics have had a tumultuous track record with a violent and impermanent nature. If Thailand wants to correct this, a clear separation must be made between its crown and the rest of its government. Voters are put in an impossibly tough position between being loyal subjects and responsible citizens. As demonstrated by Ubolratana’s campaign and the backlash from traditional royalists, if elections did not have any input from the crown, they would probably be more peaceful and free of scandal. However, the Thai people willingly and warmly let their monarchy dominate their lives, meaning the kingdom will not see this reform anytime soon.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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