By Shibani Mahtani / The Washington Post
HONG KONG — A Thai princess who appeared to upend political norms in her country by declaring her candidacy for prime minister said Saturday that she wants the country to “move forward” — a comment made after a late Friday statement from her brother, King Vajiralongkorn, that appeared to quash her political aspirations.
Later on Saturday, the party that put forward the nomination of Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi said it would respect the king’s statement and would “follow the rules and laws of the election commission, and stay respectful of the traditions and norms in Thailand.”
The statements appear to mark an end to what would have been an extraordinary candidacy by the 67-year old, the elder sister of the Thai king.
The Thai Raksa Chart party, which is aligned with ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, announced on Friday that it would nominate the princess as its candidate for prime minister in elections on March 24, an unprecedented move in a country where the revered monarchy has traditionally been seen as above politics. The move would have presented a serious challenge to Thailand’s military junta, which has ruled since a coup in 2014, and would have marked a potential comeback for Thaksin and his populist political movement.
But a Friday night palace statement read on all Thai television networks called the princess’s candidacy “extremely inappropriate” and against the “nation’s traditions, customs and culture.”
A final decision on her candidacy will be made by the election commission, which is overseeing the polls – Thailand’s first democratic vote in five years. The commission said it would issue its ruling on Monday.
The dizzying 24-hour back-and-forth, analysts say, have opened a new chapter in Thai politics. Many Thais have been anxiously glued to developments, wondering what they could mean for a country that has seen bloody street protests and several coups in recent years. If Ubolratana were to have run, analysts say, it could have potentially bolstered the popularity of the Thai king and the monarchy as a whole. It would have also marked unity between the palace and Thaksin, whose political movement has been accused of being anti-monarchy.
“He (could have) portrayed himself as the monarch who brought national reconciliation, which the army — for all of its promises — failed to do,” said Zachary Abuza, an expert on Southeast Asian politics at the National War College in Washington.
Thailand’s current prime minister, former general Prayuth Chan-ocha, will also be running for election in March. Ubolratana would have posed a significant threat to the dominance of the Thai junta, whose victory analysts say was almost a foregone conclusion till the events of the past day.
In her Instagram post on Saturday, Ubolratana thanked Thais for their love and support. She said that she “sincerely wants Thailand to move forward, and be admired by international countries.”
“I want to see all Thais having free rights, a chance, prosperity and happiness,” she said, concluding her post with #ILoveYou.
The post did not explicitly state that she was withdrawing her candidacy, and neither did the Thai Raksa Chart party’s statement. The party canceled a campaign event on Saturday without explanation.
The Thai princess formally rescinded her royal titles in 1972, when she married American Peter Jensen, a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – her first break with royal protocol. The pair had three children and lived in the United States, but divorced in 1998. One of her three children died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 200,000 across Asia.
Her political leanings have never been explicit, but the princess was photographed with Thaksin and his sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, last year. Both Thaksin and Yingluck live overseas as fugitives on corruption charges they say are politically motivated.