Thai politics was shaken to its very core yesterday with the announcement that King Vajiralongkorn‘s elder sister Ubolratana will run for Prime Minister in the upcoming Thai general elections. At first glance, the reaction is simple: monarchy should never run for office, and this announcement would appear to be bad news for Thai democracy. But the politics here are much more interesting, much more contentious, and much more momentous for Thailand’s future.
To see how, we need to understand the current state of affairs of Thai politics (not a democracy), the role of the monarchy in Thai politics (utterly politicized), and the partisan implications of her announcement (upending the status quo).
The State of Thai Politics
Thailand is a dictatorship run by a military junta. This is not up for debate: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha is a general who staged a coup in 2014 and remains the head of the National Council for Peace and Order, which is what the junta terms itself. The coup took place against the caretaker government of Yingluck Shinawatra, whose party Pheu Thai represented the continuation of the political formation constructed by her elder brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in the early 2000s. Thaksin was himself ousted in an earlier military coup in 2006. The group associated with Thaksin were colorfully known as the “red shirts” in the late 2000s.
The junta has pledged to restore democracy by holding new elections this year. The problem—from the junta’s perspective—is that holding truly free and fair elections risks electing just the next successor to Thaksin’s political movement. The “yellow shirts,” who opposed Thaksin and wear yellow because it was associated with the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, form a significant political force that give the junta some legitimacy. Almost five years ago I wrote about exactly the same problem when thinking through the 2014 political crisis.
The Monarchy in Thai Politics
Unlike monarchies in the UK or Denmark, the Thai monarchy has been utterly politicized. Thailand is formally a constitutional monarchy, and the monarch’s role is supposed to be primarily ceremonial, but this has not been true for decades. Duncan McCargo coined the term network monarchy to describe the complex interactions between the monarchy and its proxies, subordinates, and allies in the Thai political establishment. The absolute monarchy did end in 1932, but most observers of Thai politics agree that in the past half century, conservative and establishment forces have rehabilitated the monarchy—in particular through the person of the late King.
For a good illustration of how the Thai monarchy is everywhere, watch this short YouTube video, entitled “why is he everywhere?” Lèse-majesté is a serious criminal offense in Thai politics. This was bad enough when the late King was alive, but his successor Vajiralongkorn is not nearly as popular as his father was. His older sister, however, is rather popular.
The Partisan Implications
With that background, we are now ready to confront the third piece of the puzzle. The details are always messy in Thai politics, but to a first approximation, it works like this: the junta sees itself as a defender of the monarchy. Thaksin, his followers, and his movement are widely alleged to be anti-monarchical. So one argument for defending the undemocratic status quo is that it defends the monarchy. And how could you be against the monarchy? It’s literally illegal to criticize it.
Thaksin and the political movement that follows him, for their part, would reject any allegation that they are anti-monarchical. But that is how the politics breaks down. Again, there are details and exceptions, but this is basically it.
So we have an unpopular King and a military junta overseeing a return to elections in ways that ensure that the opposition will not have a good chance to win. And now the bombshell: Ubolratana has entered the race as a candidate for Prime Minister from the party associated with Thaksin’s movement. This is much more momentous than, say, Prince Harry running for office. The Thai monarchy has always been political, if you believe what I’ve written above, but now it is also divided, between a more popular royal associated with groups alleged to be critical of the monarchy and a less popular monarch associated with the undemocratic establishment.
So What’s Next
It’s a waiting game right now. We won’t know. But already in the past twelve hours we have seen some discussions of the implications, and they are (simply put) bananas.
Here’s one: how can you campaign against Ubolratana if lèse-majesté is illegal?
Here’s another: can a candidate who is not a Member of Parliament run for Prime Minister?
Here’s yet another: could Ubolratana’s entry into politics actually prove more stabilizing in the medium term? Will the successors of the red shirts rally behind her?
There are bound to be more, so watch this space.