Thailand Analytical Update: Momentum for March 24 Elections Continues to Build as Senior Royal and Prime Minister Prayut Confirm Prime Minister Candidacies, amid Other Developments

Thailand Analytical Update | February 8, 2019
Authors: Riley Smith, Ella Duangkaew, David Mineo
 
ANALYTICAL UPDATE
 
 

In a series of developments over the last week, Thailand’s political parties, Ministers and the Election Commission (EC) have taken important steps forward in the election process, all of which demonstrate the relative certainty that the country will move forward with the long-delayed election on March 24.

The most shocking development took place the morning of Friday, February 8, when the Thai Raksa Chart party announced that former Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, would be their candidate for Prime Minister. The former Princess confirmed her nomination on social media, stating that she has “lived as a commoner” and is exercising her rights as citizen “with no privileges over other people, as stated in the constitution.” The move is completely unprecedented, as a senior member of the royal family has never participated in a Thai election before. The former Princess relinquished her royal title in 1972 when she chose to marry a U.S. national. However, following their divorce in 1998, and her permanent return to Thailand in 2001, she has become one of the most active members of the royal family, setting up several charities and participating heavily in official royal activities.

The announcement of Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy was closely followed by a Palace statement read out by the King to all Thai TV networks, in which he said that “even though she has relinquished her royal titles in writing, she maintained her status and carried herself as a member of the Chakri dynasty.” The King went on to say that “involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in politics, in any way…. defies the nation’s traditions, customs and culture” and is “considered extremely inappropriate.” The King also maintained that his sister’s candidacy was unconstitutional, citing a passage of the constitution that calls for the monarchy to maintain political neutrality. These sentiments are echoed by other parties, such as the pro-military People’s Reform Party, which submitted a letter on February 8 to the EC requesting that it suspend Thai Raksa Chart’s nomination of the former Princess. Thai Raksa Chart Party has yet to respond to the Palace’s statement or the appeals to the EC. The Thai Raksa Chart Party was formed by former senior members of the Pheu Thai Party, which is linked to former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.

Also on February 8, current Prime Minister Prayut confirmed that he would officially accept the invitation to be the Prime Minister candidate for the Phalang Pracharath Party (PPP), which is composed of many former Ministers of the current administration. On February 1, Palang Pracharath founders formally invited Prime Minister Prayut to be their prime ministerial candidate at the Government House, after its two other candidates—party Leader and former Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana and current Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak—withdrew their names from the potential list of candidates. There has been no comment from the PPP yet on the nomination of the former Princess. Previously, on January 29, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared that he would neither resign as Prime Minister or Chief of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), nor would he reshuffle the current Cabinet. The announcement came amid appeals from Pheu Thai and Democrat politicians for the Prime Minister to step down, though the constitution does not require that he do so. Prime Minister Prayut declared that as chief of the NCPO, he would ensure peace and stability both before and after the March 24 elections.

In addition, on January 31, the Pheu Thai Party also nominated three former Ministers for its prime ministerial candidates—former Agriculture Minister Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, former Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt, and former Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri—and also revealed its plans to field 250 candidates for parliament. Party Secretary-General Poomtham Vechayachai claimed that he was confident that Pheu Thai would win all of these positions. Just the week prior, the Democrat Party also announced that it had nominated former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as its candidate for Prime Ministerial, and the Bhumjaithai Party announced that it had nominated businessman Anutin Charnveerakul.

Closely preceding the announcement of Prime Ministerial candidates, on Tuesday, January 29, four current Cabinet Ministers that also serve in the leadership of the Phalang Pracharath Party, announced their resignation from the Government. The Ministers include Minister of Industry Uttama Savanayana, who serves as the Party’s leader; Minister of Commerce Sontirat Sontijirawong, who serves as the Party’s Secretary-General; Minister of Science and Technology Suvit Maesincee, who serves as the Party’s Deputy Leader; and Minister to the Prime Minister’s Office Kobsak Pootrakool, who serves as the Party’s Spokesman. The Ministers indicated that they resigned because their “tasks as Ministers were finished,” and, though they maintained that they never discussed political matters during work hours, their resignation would allow them to put allegations of conflicts of interest to rest. Such resignations are unprecedented, though Ministers simultaneously holding political party leadership roles in previous administrations have also received criticism for their “dual roles.”

To make up for those who resigned, Prime Minister Prayut stated that the remaining Ministers would assume leadership responsibility for the Ministries left without leadership following the four resignations. Though details are not yet confirmed, it is likely that Ministers of “similar” Ministries would assume leadership responsibility in those affected by the resignations. For example, it is likely that the Minister of Digital Economy and Society Pichet Durongkaveroj, who formerly held the position of Minister of Science and Technology, would also oversee the Science and Technology Ministry. Similarly, Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, who oversees all economic policymaking, could potentially oversee the Commerce Ministry. Overall, the actions of the Ministers who resigned demonstrate their good faith in respecting the March 24 election date, supporting with relative certainty the notion that the elections will move forward on this date.

In addition, on February 4, the EC opened registration of constituency and party-list candidates on and has published a number of rules governing the course of the event. The EC has also released a phone application that will provide voters with knowledge on the election process as well as copies of the 2017 Constitution.

With all of these important developments, it appears evident that the Thai Government is committed to moving forward with elections on March 24. The addition of the former Princess as a Prime Ministerial candidate may introduce many complications, particularly given the King’s opposition to his elder sister’s candidacy. It appears that Prime Minister Prayut will retain a level of influence over the elections in light of his announcement on January 29, though it remains too early to determine exactly what kind of role he intends to play, particularly given his confirmed candidacy for the Phalang Pracharath Party. In the past, Prime Minister Prayut has stated that he was not worried by criticism from other politicians and would not be pressured to resign if nominated as a candidate for Prime Minister. Palang Pracharath Party Secretary-General Sontirat also denied allegations that Prayut’s candidacy was an attempt to keep the junta in power and maintains the Party is a separate entity from the NCPO. It is very unclear at this point how these developments will impact election results, particularly while it remains unclear if the former Princess’s nomination will stand given the King’s opposition and appeals from other parties.