Former Thai princess named as prime minister candidate for Thaksin-linked party as junta chief Prayut joins race

Former princess Ubolratana Rajakanya was the sole prime minister candidate nominated by the Thai Raksa Chart Party on Feb 8, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS
Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechapol Pongpanich with the application form for the party's candidate for prime minister, Ms Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, at the election commission office in Bangkok on Feb 8, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - The elder sister of Thailand's king has been nominated to be prime minister for a party linked to former premier Thaksin Shinawatra in a surprise development for the country's much-anticipated election on March 24, while junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha also announced his bid for the job.

Ms Ubolratana Rajakanya, 67, was the sole prime minister candidate nominated by the Thai Raksa Chart Party on Friday morning (Feb 8) as the registration of candidates drew to a close.

This marks the first time a senior royal has participated in a Thai election.

Under Thailand's new electoral system, parties eyeing the premiership are required to name their candidates in advance.

"The (party) board agrees that the name of Princess Ubolratana, an educated and skilled person, is the most suitable choice (for premier)," Thai Raksa Chart Party leader Preechapol Pongpanich told reporters.

Thai Raksa Chart Party was created by many former members of the Pheu Thai Party, which won the last election in 2011 but was thrown out of power by a military coup in 2014. It is allied with Pheu Thai Party for the upcoming election.

The eldest child of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Ms Ubolratana relinquished her royal title at the age of 21 when she married a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After the couple divorced in 1998, she moved back to Thailand, where she continues to be treated as a royal.

Her activities are chronicled alongside those of her three siblings - including current King Maha Vajiralongkorn - in the regular television news bulletin about the royal family.

The former princess, whose full name is Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, has a heavier media presence than any of her siblings though, including an Instagram page with about 100,000 followers.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Prayut, who led the coup in 2014 as then army chief, has accepted the invitation by the army-aligned Palang Pracharath Party to be its prime minister nominee.

"I agree to accept the invitation by Palang Pracharath to nominate my name to Parliament to be appointed as PM," Mr Prayut said.

The party was co-founded by four key ministers in Mr Prayut's Cabinet who quit their positions in late January to focus on the election. Key party leaders have publicly vowed to continue the policies of the current military government.

Analysts say the participation of Ms Ubolratana in the election is a monumental shift in a country where the royal family is officially treated as semi-divine.

"It's really throwing the political scene into a loop," Dr David Streckfuss, a scholar of South-east Asian politics and honorary fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Bloomberg. "It's something very new for Thai society."

Dr Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University's College of Asean Community Studies in Thailand, said "this is unprecedented for Thailand".

"It'll be difficult for parties to run against the princess. It'll be hard for anyone to campaign against her. Voters would find it difficult to choose someone that's not part of her party, because Thai ideology puts the royals at the top," he was quoted as saying by Bloomberg.

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