- - Monday, February 11, 2019

BANGKOK — In a bizarre palace intrigue with potential political implications, Thailand’s government-controlled Election Commission Monday officially disqualified a royal princess from running for prime minister in next month’s polls three days after she offered herself as a candidate.

The commission was acting following an order issued late Friday by the princess’s brother — also known as King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

What made the aborted “campaign” of Princess Ubolratana Mahidol so significant was that she was planning to run with a party associated with the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup but still seen as a rival to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who seized power in 2014 and is putting his job on the line in long-delayed national elections next month.

The military, Mr. Prayuth’s power base, has long established ties to the royal family, making the princess’s proposed candidacy with a rival party all the more stunning.

“All members of the royal family must abide by the king’s principle of staying above politics, maintaining political impartiality, and they cannot take up political office,” the electoral commission said.

Tensions appear to be rising ahead of the March 24 vote, as the Bangkok government batted down what it said were false reports and forged documents claiming that the prime minister had fired Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong and other top military officers.

“Rumors. We are investigating. Fake news,” Mr. Prayuth told reporters Monday, a day after the #coup trended on Thai Twitter accounts. Tanks rumbling through the streets of the provincial capital of Lopburi tried to calm the public by pasting pieces of paper saying “For Training” on the tanks’ metal sides.

Ubolratana’s failed election attempt came as the commission was also formally approving Mr. Prayuth and all other prime ministerial candidates entering the race.

The fate of the new Thai Raksa Chart party — which has links to Mr. Thaksin’s political operation and which briefly welcomed the princess as a nominee — remains to be decided. The party said it was “accepting the royal command with loyalty toward His Majesty,” after the king expressed displeasure.

Ubolratana’s anti-junta supporters thus experienced only one day of euphoria Friday when she first shocked the public by announcing her candidacy. They were convinced she would defeat Mr. Prayuth, but their dreams ended near midnight the same day.

Vajiralongkorn announced on all Thai TV networks that his sister’s involvement in politics “breaches time-honored royal traditions, customs and national culture. Such action must be deemed a transgression and most inappropriate.”

“Despite the fact that Princess Ubolratana had relinquished her title in writing, in compliance with Palace Laws, she has been maintaining her status as a member of the Chakri royal family,” the king said according to a Foreign Ministry translation.

“The monarch and senior members of the royal family always hold themselves above politics.”

The unprecedented developments unnerved many Thais. Partisans for and against Ubolratana expressed devotional support or harsh condemnation on social media and in private conversations.

Lined up against Ubolratana were Mr. Prayuth’s supporters, royalists, Thailand’s so-called “old money” elite, troops and officers in the U.S.-trained military, and Bangkok’s middle class.

Energizing the opposition

But her one-day campaign energized Thailand’s large pro-democracy movement including northeast voters, lower classes and a new generation of urban Thais demanding civil liberties that were sharply curtailed after the 2014 coup and Mr. Prayuth’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

And many feared the candidacy could take the country back to the bad old days of political feuding and violence. Before the coup, periodic street clashes in Bangkok for and against elections killed more than 100 people, mostly pro-democracy civilians. As a result of the latest political turmoil, Thailand is suffering a “complete reigniting of the smoldering volcano of political hatred on both sides,” said Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior columnist at Khaosod English news.

Many saw the princess as a way for Mr. Thaksin to lead his candidates back to power 13 years after the coup that ousted him. The princess had no political experience, and Mr. Thaksin helped set up the Thai Raksa Chart party.

Ubolratana represented perhaps the only person who could clearly upstage Prayuth in the polls, especially since the junta controls the election machinery,” said Paul Chambers, an international affairs instructor at Naresuan University.

Mr. Thaksin and his sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, are international fugitives avoiding prison sentences for corruption committed during their administrations. Mr. Prayuth toppled Ms. Yingluck’s government in his 2014 putsch.

Princess Ubolratana’s election attempt “brought back to the surface the bitter enmity between the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps like nothing else since the May 2014 coup,” Mr. Pravit said.

Mr. Thaksin still has candidates in his popular Pheu Thai party, including three possible prime ministers. If Pheu Thai forms a coalition with other parties, they could dominate the lower house of the national parliament, although the new constitution pushed through by Mr. Prayuth effectively guarantees the junta control of the Thai Senate.

Mr. Prayuth and his new pro-military Palang Pracharath party are aiming to keep him in power, with the House and Senate jointly deciding who becomes the next prime minister.

Mr. Thaksin was not conceding the race even after the king’s order nixed his party’s best-known candidate, tweeting to supporters after the royal veto came down: “Chin up and keep moving forward!”

“We learn from past experiences but live for today and the future. Cheer up! Life must go on!” Mr. Thaksin said from an undisclosed location.

Glamorous and extroverted, Ubolratana is the eldest daughter of widely revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in 2017. After the royal succession, her younger brother is now king.

Born in 1951, she studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before completing a master’s degree in public health at the University of California, Los Angeles. She relinquished her royal status in 1972 when she married Peter Jensen, an American, and lived in the U.S.

They divorced in 1998. The princess returned to Thailand with her three children in 2001, including a son who drowned in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“I would like to exercise my right and my freedom as a commoner under the constitution,” the princess wrote in an Instagram post on Friday.

Shortly afterward, her brother’s edict nipped her candidacy in the bud.

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