Ubolratana Rajakanya, the older sister of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, has been nominated as a prime ministerial candidate by a leading political party, in a surprise move that is set to transform Thai politics ahead of a closely watched election
The Thai Raksa Chart party, affiliated with exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, on Friday named the princess, daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as its candidate for the kingdom’s first election since the 2014 military coup. it will be the first time a senior member of the royal family has run as a political candidate.
“The Thai Raksa Chart party is deeply honoured to have received [Princess Ubolratana’s] kindness in accepting the party’s nomination to be prime minister,” the party said, in a statement that made reference to the princess’s past studies in the US as well as her work promoting tourism and fighting drug abuse among young people.
Princess Ubolratana, who is 67, relinquished her royal titles in 1972, after marrying Peter Jensen, an American citizen she later divorced. However, Thais still revere her as a member of the royal family and use her title. She has acted in films and is popular on social media, with a private Instagram account, @nichax, that has almost 100,000 followers.
“Having been a representative promoting tourism for over 10 years, she concluded that it’s time to volunteer to serve as prime minister, assisting the country and the people by utilising the knowledge and abilities she accumulated over the years in various aspects both locally and abroad,” Thai Raksa Chart said in a statement. “We would thus like to inform the public about her kindness.”
Separately on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of Thailand’s governing military junta, announced that he, too, would contest the election as a prime ministerial candidate for the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party, throwing his hat in the ring before Friday’s deadline for candidates to register.
The election on March 24 is being watched intently both in Thailand and overseas and marks the first return to electoral politics for a country with a history of political unrest and violence.
The poll will be held under a new constitution that was meant to favour the junta by allowing it to appoint the 250 members of the Senate, the upper house, favouring small parties over Mr Thaksin’s camp, which has won every election in Thailand during the past two decades.
Mr Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, also a former prime minister, both live in exile, but wield significant political power behind the scenes. Princess Ubolratana is friendly with them both and was photographed with them at the football World Cup in Russia last year.
Alongside Pheu Thai, Mr Thaksin’s traditional party, Thai Raksa Chart and two other parties sympathetic to his camp are in the running. Analysts said that the princess’s candidacy under the banner of one of the pro-Thaksin parties might throw off previous assumptions that the pro-junta PPP held the upper hand in the vote.
“This will further complicate Thai politics in which the faultline has been drawn on the monarchy,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, said of Princess Ubolratana candidacy. “The era of the so called ‘monarchy above politics’ is officially over.”
Princess Ubolratana was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, while her late father was studying there, and earned a degree in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a masters degree in public health from UCLA. She had three children with Mr Jensen, one of whom was killed in the 2004 tsunami that ravaged south-east Asia.
Thailand’s king, who is due to be officially crowned as Rama X on May 4-6, is the country’s head of state and holds significant power, as well as property and stock holdings that make him one of the world’s richest monarchs.
However, the royal house has until now kept a public distance from electoral politics. One Singapore-based political risk analyst, who declined to be quoted for fear of potential legal repercussions in Thailand, said: “Princess Ubolratana may on the one hand be perfectly placed to bridge the longstanding ‘red/yellow divide’, but on the other, her becoming prime minister could raise serious constitutional questions.”
Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws prevent individuals or media, including the Financial Times, from airing information seen as insulting to the monarchy, and is punishable by long prison sentences.
Additional reporting by Don Weinland in Hong Kong.