Thailand king’s sister Princess Ubolratana enters PM race
Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, was nominated by a party loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
BANGKOK - The sister of Thailand’s king entered the race to become prime minister on Friday as the candidate of a populist party, an unprecedented foray into politics by a royal that instantly upended the first election since a 2014 military coup.
Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, was nominated by a party loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the figure at the centre of years of political turbulence and rival street protests that have riven Thai society.
One of her chief opponents in the March 24 election will be Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who was army chief when he led the 2014 coup and now heads the ruling junta, who also announced his candidacy on Friday.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932 but the royal family has wielded great influence and commands the devotion of millions.
It was not immediately clear whether the nomination of Ubolratana, who has starred in Thai soap operas and lived in California for years, had the approval of King Vajiralongkorn.
The nomination of a member of the royal family by the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart party could transform an election that had been viewed as a straightforward battle between Thaksin’s populists and their allies, on the one hand, and the royalist-military establishment on the other.
“This is a profound development that will shape the contours and dynamics of Thai politics before and after the election ... Thai Raksa Chart is a leading contender now,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, told Reuters.
Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles in 1972 when she married an American, a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Peter Jensen.
She lived in the United States for more than 26 years before they divorced in 1998.
She thanked her supporters in an Instagram post.
“I have accepted the Thai Raksa Chart Party nomination for a prime minister to show my rights and freedom without any privileges above other fellow Thai citizens under the constitution,” she said.
The rivalry between the Bangkok-centred, royalist elites and Thaksin and his rural-based supporters has brought street protests, military coups, and violent clashes over almost 15 years.
Thaksin and his party have been accused by their enemies of being opposed to the monarchy, which they have always rejected.
Pundits were left guessing whether the princess’ nomination was a bid to heal those divisions, with the approval of the king who assumed the throne after the death of his father in 2016, or a bold gambit by Thaksin loyalists to undercut the royalist appeal of the pro-establishment parties.
“Previous assumptions and scenarios have to be reconsidered,” Thitinan said. “If this turns out well, it will be a process of reconciliation and unity. If this does not turn out well, it will pose an alarming risk and even greater risk for Thailand’s political future.”
Ubolratana’s foray into politics follows a long period of mourning for King Bhumibol, who died in October 2016, and as her brother establishes himself on the throne.
Thai Raksa Chart is an off-shoot of the main pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party whose government, led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, was ousted in the 2014 coup.
Pheu Thai is also fielding candidates in the election, and the Thai Raksa Chart was formed by Thaksin loyalists and the core leadership of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or “red shirts” group, as a strategy to help Pheu Thai win seats, or to act as a back-up if the main party was disqualified.
Ubolratana’s candidacy was questioned by a small pro-military party, the People’s Reform Party, which asked the Election Commission to consider whether it violated laws forbidding parties from invoking the monarchy in campaigns.
But Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters at the Election Commission he was not worried about challenges.
“She is knowledgeable and is highly suitable. I believe there will be no legal problems in terms of her qualification, but we have to wait for the Election Commission to endorse her candidacy,” Preechapol said.
The Election Commission is required to endorse or reject all candidates by next Friday.
Junta leader Prayuth accepted his nomination from the Palang Pracharat Party, a new party set up by his loyalists, in an official statement.
“I am not aiming to extend my power but I am doing this for the benefit of the country and the people,” he said.
There was no mention of the princess in Prayuth’s statement.
Ubolratana, the eldest child of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was born in Lausanne in 1951. She studied mathematics and biochemistry at MIT and earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California at Los Angeles.
She returned permanently to Thailand in 2001, performing royal duties but never regaining her full royal titles. She is referred to as “Tunkramom Ying”, which means “Daughter to the Queen Regent”, and is treated by officials as a member of the royal family.
Ubolratana is known for championing an anti-drugs programme and has also starred in several soap operas and movies.
Her son was killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
On her Instagram account, the princess recently posted videos of her enjoying street food and complaining about Bangkok’s pollution.
Soon after Friday’s announcement, her catchphrase #SongPhraSlender (Long Live Slender) was number one on Twitter in Thailand.
“I’ve been bored with politics for so long, but the princess has made me happy about the election again,” one fan wrote on a web forum.