Ubolratana Mahidol, the eldest child of the late King Bhumibol, was nominated Friday to be Thailand’s next prime minister.
In a stunning move that immediately remade the political landscape going into next month’s election, Ubolratana was nominated for the post by a party aligned with a fugitive former prime minister. It is the first time a close member of the royal family has sought political office in the kingdom’s 86 years as a constitutional monarchy.
“The Thai Raksa Chart Party is deeply honored to have received Ubolratana Mahidol’s kindness in accepting the party’s nomination to be prime minister,” the party said in a prepared statement.
Ubolratana’s entry into politics sends immediate shock waves through what had been shaping up to be a crowded field. As the first member of an institution held up as semi-divine to seek office, her announcement invalidates many of the assumptions that went into political maneuvering by the military as it prepares to cede power.
The most immediate consequence is the likely deflation of Palang Pracharat, a pro-junta party founded and led by members of the military regime. The military man who has run Thailand since staging a coup in 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, was expected to accept Palang Pracharat’s nomination today after spending the past two years rebranding himself a mainstream politician.
Also Friday morning, despite expectations he would stand down in the wake of Ubolratana’s announcement, Prayuth announced he will also run as prime minister.
Friday was the last day for all candidates to register – whether to represent constituencies, run on party lists or serve as an unelected prime minister.
Prayuth oversaw the writing of the current constitution, which opened the door to the elevation of an unelected prime minister through the same mechanism now taken up by Ubolratana.
“I think it will be a fair game because everyone is going to the election, and it’s all up to the people. Everyone is going to cast their votes on March 24,” party leader Preechapol Pongpanich said of the potential showdown between the two candidates.
Though rumors Ubolratana would be a candidate began spreading Monday and grew throughout the week, they could not be confirmed until today.
Thailand’s draconian lese majeste law, which since the coup has become more broadly applied than written, effectively makes any criticism of the royal family and its related institutions an unspeakable taboo punishable by lengthy prison sentences.
Still, 67-year-old Ubolratana has cultivated a maverick image by defying conventions throughout her life.
She surrendered her formal royal title upon marrying an American in 1972, though she later divorced and returned to Thailand to become an active participant in royal life.
She commands a fervent following online for her effusive and unapologetically eccentric style.
On Instagram she is followed by nearly 10,000 people despite setting her account to “private.” There and elsewhere online, she has been a regular source of viral moments, whether for Christmas caroling, singing percussion, leading pop stage shows or taking sides in football during last year’s World Cup.
Thai Raksa Chart is one of several offshoots of Pheu Thai, the political faction that has won every election for two decades. Thaksin has led from afar since being deposed in a 2006 coup, eight years before his younger sister’s government would be brought down by the current ruling junta. Both fled Thailand rather than serve prison time for corruption in cases their supporters say were politically motivated.
Though Thaksin is political kryptonite to many in the ruling class, Ubolratana hasn’t been shy about associating with him. Last year she posed for photos with him at the World Cup in Russia.
Ubolratana is the eldest child of Queen Sirikit and the late King Bhumibol. She was born in 1951 in Lausanne, Switzerland, while her father was a student there. Together with her father, she won a gold medal in sailing at the 1967 Southeast Asian Games.
A year after she married, Ubolratana completed her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating with a degree in biochemistry.
She had three children with Peter Jensen, one of whom was killed in the 2004 tsunami. Her two daughters live in the United States.
Pheu Thai is the latest successor to a political movement launched by Thaksin that has won every election since 2001. But it faced daunting math to reclaiming the government house yet again under the rewritten constitution that weakened large parties.
Members of the upper house will be fully appointed by Prayuth and have a say in choosing the next PM, meaning any single party would struggle to win enough seats to overcome their votes.