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Princess's run for prime minister shocks Thai politics

By The Associated Press
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BANGKOK (AP) — The older sister of the king of Thailand said Friday she will run for prime minister in elections next month, upending the palace's decades-long tradition of eschewing politics and setting up a surprise contest with the leading military-backed candidate.

Princess Ubolratana Mahidol's nomination by the opposition Thai Raksa Chart Party marks a shock realignment of Thai politics. The party is linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who hardcore royalists have long dismissed as opposed in spirit to the monarchy.

The nomination pits the princess against current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the preferred candidate of the military, considered one of Thailand's most royalist institutions.

Prayuth, who led the 2014 military coup that ousted Thailand's last elected government, on Friday also accepted his nomination as candidate for prime minister by the Palang Pracharat Party, widely seen as a proxy for the military.

Prayuth had been considered the front-runner for the March 24 polls because changes in the constitution and election rules implemented by his government make it difficult for political parties without military backing to capture the prime minister's post.

But Ubolratana's de facto alliance with the powerful political machine of exiled Thaksin — whose comeback the military has made every effort to block — puts Prayuth's supporters in an extremely awkward position. It will be difficult to block her political rise because she will be seen as a representative of the monarchy — the nation's most revered and respected institution.

Thailand also has a draconian lese majeste law which punishes defamation of the immediate royal family with up to 15 years in prison. While it does not technically apply to Ubolratana, who lost her highest royal titles when she married an American more than four decades ago, its scope has been widened in recent years to almost anything that sullies the royal institution, making criticism of the princess highly problematical.

"This is a game changer," said Allen Hicken, a political scientist at the University of Michigan specializing in Southeast Asian studies. "In the event Thaksin-aligned parties win the election, it makes it very difficult for the military and royalists to contest, protest, or seek to overturn the result."

Ubolratana was not present when her name was registered with the Election Commission by the Thai Raksa Chart Party. Its leader, Preechapol Pongpanit, said its executive committee "agrees that Princess Ubolratana, who is intelligent and capable, is the most appropriate name." She made no known public appearances Friday.

"From my point of view, I think she understands Thai politics. She understands democracy," he told reporters.

She later issued a statement on Instagram saying she has "no special privileges above the Thai people under the constitution."

"This act of mine, I have done out of sincerity and intention to sacrifice in this request to lead the country to prosperity," she said.

Palace officials could not be reached for comment.

Because Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, the king and his immediate circle are not supposed to involve themselves directly in politics.

Parliament has had members who were distant relatives of the monarch. Ubolratana falls into a gray area, as she is commonly called and treated as a princess.

Just hours after she was registered as a candidate, another political party supporting Prayuth filed an objection with the Election Commission, arguing that the action broke rules banning the use of the royal institution as part of a political campaign. Several other complaints followed, mostly from conservative royalists, exposing a possible vulnerability in her plans.

Ubolratana, 67, is the first-born of four children of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit, with the current king the second-born.

She was virtually disowned by her father in 1972 when she married American Peter Jensen, who was a fellow student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They settled in the United States where they had three children. They later divorced and she moved back permanently to Thailand in 2001.

Since then she has thrown herself into charity work, especially her "To Be No. 1" foundation to fight youth drug abuse. She also frequently promotes Thai tourism and movies at international forums. In general, like most of the royal family, she publicly kept herself aloof from Thailand's recent political turmoil.

For most of Bhumibol's reign from 1946 to his death in 2016, the revered and humble monarch was a stabilizing force in Thai politics. But the election of Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon, in 2001 was transformative for Thailand.

His populist policies delivered unmatchable electoral majorities, but he was resented by the traditional ruling class, including royalists and the military. Violent street protests and two military coups have marked the years since. Thaksin went in exile in 2008 to avoid serving jail time on a corruption conviction he insists was politically motivated.

His well-funded political machine returned his allies to power twice, and his maneuvering is seen as the key element in arranging for Ubolratana's selection by a Thaksin-affiliated party.

Most observers of Thai politics agree that Thaksin aggressively pursued good relations with Ubolratana's brother, current King Maha Vajiralongkorn, and friendship with the princess herself. These links were formed as royalists and others loyal to Bhumibol accused Thaksin of showing disrespect for the throne, and even of harboring secret republican tendencies.

Thai Raksa Chart Party chief Preechapol brushed aside questions about Thaksin.

"I don't think that Khun (Mr.) Thaksin will be involved about this," he said. "I don't think it's appropriate to talk about a third person."

When Vajiralongkorn ascended to the throne, conventional wisdom saw him as tightening his grip on power by allying himself closely with the military.

The surprise entry of his sister Ubolratana into politics — assumed to be with the king's approval — raises questions about whether the long-lasting partnership of the palace with the army is in jeopardy.

"Assuming that this is proceeding with the blessing of the king, this suggests that the crown is trying to chart its own course through Thailand's turbulent political waters, placing some distance between itself and the military," Hicken said.

He acknowledged, however, that it is too soon to tell what end result the king has in mind.

___

Associated Press writer Kaweewit Kaewjinda contributed to this report.

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