In this March 24, 2010, file photo, Thai Princess Ubolratana poses for a photo at the Thai Gala Night in Hong Kong. (KIN CHEUNG / AP)
BANGKOK - Thailand's royalty made an unprecedented move into politics on Friday when the sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn was declared as a prime ministerial candidate for March 24 elections, registration papers showed.
The nomination of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, 67, the elder sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, promised to upend Thailand's already turbulent politics because it breaks the long-standing tradition of Thai royalty staying out of politics.
Princess Ubolratana will run as a candidate for a party loyal to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra. One of her leading opponents will be Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand's military junta, who also announced his candidacy on Friday.
The election shapes as a battle between Thaksin's populists and their allies and the royalist-military establishment. However, the nomination of a member of the royal family by the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart party could change that dynamic.
One of her leading opponents will be Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of Thailand's military junta, who also announced his candidacy on Friday
Thai Raksa Chart is an off-shoot of the Pheu Thai Party, 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 votes.
"The party has nominated the princess as its sole candidate," Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters after registering his party's candidate at the Election Commission.
"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," he said.
The leader of a pro-military party in Thailand said the nomination of Ubolratana may breach election law.
Paiboon Nititawan, the leader of the People's Reform Party, said the nomination could breach the law that prevents political parties from using the monarchy for campaigning.
Ubolratana reassured later on Friday on her Instagram page that she has taken the rights and freedom of a commoner under the constitution to accept nomination as candidate for prime minister by Thai Raksa Chart Party.
She said she will by no means take any privileges while contesting the election.
Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles in 1972 after marrying an American fellow student, but she is still treated by officials and the Thai public as a member of the royal family.
The Election Commission is required to endorse or reject all candidates by next Friday.
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, arrives before meeting with the leader of the Palang Pracharat political party Uttama Savanayana at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Feb 1, 2019. (SAKCHAI LALIT / AP)
Prayuth accepted his nomination from the Palang Pracharat Party in an official statement.
I am not aiming to extending my power but I am doing this for the benefit for the country and the people
Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thai PM
"I am not aiming to extending my power but I am doing this for the benefit for the country and the people," he said.
Friday’s unfolding drama is a major surprise for investors, said Jitra Amornthum, head of research at Finansia Syrus Securities Pcl in Bangkok. The nation’s currency weakened 0.4 percent against the dollar as of 11:23 am in the capital, leading declines in Asia, while the Thai stock market was little changed.
The coup Prayuth led unseated a Pheu Thai Party-led administration headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister. Thaksin or his allies like Pheu Thai have won every election dating back to 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or the military in a more than decade-long tussle for power with Thailand’s urban establishment.
A telecom tycoon who entered politics in the 1990s, Thaksin won the support of millions of rural Thais with expanded welfare programs, but opponents accused him of graft and challenging the power of the monarchy.
He eventually fled to avoid a jail sentence for abuse of power, charges that he denied. His sister fled in 2017, also to avoid jail in a case she said was politically motivated.
Before the coup, the economy ground to a standstill amid sometimes bloody protests that pitted Thaksin’s so-called red-shirt support base against yellow-shirt clad opponents. Prayuth prioritized stability but curbed freedom of speech and assembly.
In this March 24, 2010, photo, Thai Princess Ubolratana poses for a photo during her visit to promote Thailand's film industry at the Entertainment Expo Hong Kong Filmart. (VINCENT YU / AP)
The prospect of a party linked to Thaksin contesting the poll with a royal at the helm may spark fresh speculation about his chances of returning to a country he hasn’t set foot in since 2008, but where he retains a loyal following.
Princess Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles in 1972 when she married an American, her fellow MIT student Peter Jensen
"It’ll be difficult for parties to run against the princess," said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s College of ASEAN Community Studies in the country’s north. "Voters would find it difficult to choose someone that’s not part of her party, because Thai ideology puts the royals at the top."
Princess Ubolratana, the oldest daughter of King Bhumibol, was born in Lausanne in 1951. She studied mathematics and bio-chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and earned a master degree in public health from the University of California at Los Angeles.
Princess Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles when she married her fellow MIT student Peter Jensen. She lived in the United States for more than 26 years before they divorced in 1998.
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.
The princess has a heavier media presence than any of her siblings, ranging from appearances in Thai movies and television to an Instagram page with about 100,000 followers. Her full name is Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi.
Thailand has among the world’s toughest lese-majeste laws, which make it illegal to defame, insult or threaten the king, queen, heir apparent or regent.
"The princess is not covered by the lese-majeste law, but of course if people start to criticize her, it may be deemed to be a criticism of the Thai king as she is his sister, so I would not be surprised to see rival candidates back down," said Thitinan of Chulalongkorn University.
Princess Ubolratana is known for her "To be Number One" philanthropy campaign, which aims to help young people stay away from drugs.
An avid social media user, she recently posted videos eating street food and another complaining about pollution in Bangkok.
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