Updated at 4:14 p.m. ET on 2019-02-13
Thailand’s election regulator urged the Constitutional Court on Wednesday to disband a party that nominated a princess as its pick for prime minister, saying the unprecedented move was hostile toward the monarchy.
The Thai Raksa Chart party on Feb. 8 named Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi as its sole choice for the nation’s top political leadership. But her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, immediately issued an edict condemning her candidacy as “extremely inappropriate.”
“On Tuesday, the Election Commission considered the premiership nomination of a person and found it is hostile to the constitutional monarchy,” the Election Commission (EC) said in a press statement.
It also emphasized that it had recommended that Thai Raksa Chart be dissolved, preventing it from participating in the March 24 general election.
The commission said it had "resolved to seek the Constitutional Court's consideration to disband the Thai Raksa Chart Party in line with Section 92(2) of the Political Party Act."
The court said it would decide on Thursday whether to accept the case.
Princess Ubolratana said she was saddened by the reaction to her nomination.
“I regret my genuine commitment to helping the nation and all Thai people in turn caused such a trouble that should not be a trouble in this era,” she wrote on her private Instagram account Monday. She followed her comment with the hashtag #howcomeitsthewayitis.
Preechapol Pongpanit, the party leader, told reporters he was still waiting for copies of the court petition.
“We have the right to explain,” he said. “Give Thai Raksa Chart Party a chance to refute all accusations.”
He said his party had good intentions in nominating the princess. “I still stand by our position that we’re innocent,” he said.
Preechapol was a high-ranking member of Pheu Thai Party, which was linked to former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. His party’s maneuver to woo voters by naming the princess stunned the nation and broke the tradition of the royal family publicly staying out of politics.
The election commission put an end to the short-lived candidacy on Monday, echoing the king’s words as it disqualified the 67-year-old princess from the coming polls. Members of the monarch’s family are required “to be above politics and to be politically neutral,” the commission said.
But while the EC was empowered to seek court verdicts involving political parties, it should first gather sufficient evidence from the accused party, said Pichit Chuenban, the party’s chief legal adviser.
“Evidence gathering should not be done in a one-sided way,” Pichit told reporters Tuesday. “The international standard must be followed to ensure fairness to all.”
Escalating political turbulence
Princess Ubolratana’s nomination escalated the political turbulence in Thailand, which has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932. Thais revere the monarchy and consider the king – who commands the devotion of millions – to be semi-divine.
But her attempt to participate in national elections and align herself with the Shinawatra clan would pit herself against the junta led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who declined to give his opinion about the extraordinary sequence of events.
“I don’t have an opinion on who should be responsible for the Feb. 8 incident because it is up to the agencies involved,” Prayuth told reporters Tuesday. “Let bygones be bygones, no more troubles.”
The March 24 polls will be the first electoral battle between the followers of the Shinawatras and Prayuth, a former army general who led a military coup that toppled Yingluck five years ago.
Yingluck was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for rice subsidy fraud, but managed to flee the country in 2017. She has since lived in self-exile in several countries with Thaksin, who also fled Thailand following a 2006 military coup but has remained popular among rural Thais.
The dramatic events during the past few days reignited political tensions, analysts said, as many Thais expected that parties connected to Thaksin would pose a significant challenge to Prayuth, despite a new military-drafted constitution that allows the junta to appoint the 250 members of the Senate.
Along with the lower house, the Senate gets to vote for prime minister, and Thai Raksa Chart’s dissolution would lead to an uphill battle for supporters of the Shinawatra clan, analysts said.
“Should the party be dissolved, the other pro-Thaksin party, Puea Thai, would be politically vulnerable – by itself it might not be able to win a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament, and it too could face efforts to remove its members from politics or even dissolve it after the election in March,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, wrote Wednesday on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.
A Thai academician said the election commission’s move to get Thai Raksa Chart dissolved was unfair.
“I see the EC is not fair to all sides,” Professor Anusorn Unno, dean of sociology and anthropology at Thammasat University in Bangkok, told BenarNews.
“Previously Palang Pracharat Party was suspected with its fundraising feasts. No one investigated it,” Anusorn said, referring to the controversial fundraisers organized earlier by the pro-military party.
“But this (nomination) issue was raised Friday and decided in only two working days,” he said, alleging that the election commission’s decision was biased in favor of the junta.
Concerns about the fairness of the forthcoming polls were also raised on Tuesday after the nation’s telecoms regulator, citing national security concerns, suspended the operating license of Voice TV, a station linked to the Shinawatras.
NBTC commissioner Peerapong Manakit told reporters, without elaborating, that the station had been involved in “creating confusion and instigating disturbance.”
On Wednesday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said taking a television station off the air, even temporarily, is unjustified censorship that will raise doubts about the fairness of the media environment ahead of national elections.
“The suspension of Voice TV underlines the message that criticizing Thailand’s military government prior to the elections is forbidden,” Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a statement.
“Thailand’s generals are showing they don’t intend to ease their heavy-handed rule over the country to ensure a fair vote.”