BANGKOK - The dramatic foray of a Thai princess into the country’s election, which collapsed almost as dramatically as it began over the weekend, has returned Thai politics to a familiar state of turmoil and fear.
In a country that has endured more than 30 attempted coups since 1932, 12 of them successful, rumors are now circulating wildly of another.
“More has happened politically in the past five days than has happened in 15 years, if not 20 years, in Thailand. And this is creating a lot of confusion and everyone is scrambling to keep up with what’s happening,” said Thailand based political risk consultant George McLeod.
Princess Ubolratana Mahidol triggered the pandemonium on Friday by registering as a prime ministerial candidate for upcoming March 24 elections - an unprecedented royal foray into frontline politics.
Initially it was heralded as a political masterstroke as the popular princess was considered a far more appealing electoral prospect than incumbent military junta rule Prayuth Chan-o-cha.
But the move was quickly struck down - first by her younger brother King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who called it highly inappropriate and unconstitutional hours later, and then by the Election Commission on Monday.
Thailand's Election Commission Monday formally disqualified Princess Ubolratana Mahidol from running for prime minister for a party-linked to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"The EC today has announced the name of candidates excluding Princess Ubolratana proposed by the Thai Raksa Chart party," it said in a statement, adding "because all royal family members are above politics."
The statement follows Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn move last week to crush the plans of his older sister, Princess Ubolratana, 67, to become a candidate for the country's prime minister.
The Thai Raksa
Thai royals have long been held to embody a higher moral purity that serves to lift the country above the pettiness of political bickering.
Rules preclude them from participating directly in party politics, though the princess believed she was exempt from these because she relinquished her royal title in 1972.
Thailand’s ultra royalists are still angry over her short dalliance with Thai Raksa Chart - a party under the control of their staunch enemy, exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin and the royalists have been quarreling for most of the last two decades in a bitter feud that has fueled bloodshed and two coups, including one in 2014 that returned the country to its current state of military rule.
Now concerns are growing that the already fragile process that was to see a transition back to civilian rule - albeit with many autocratic, military friendly caveats built into the system - could collapse.
A political pressure group called The Association for the Protection of the Thai Constitution, has pushed the Election Commission to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart entirely.
Thai Raksa Chart has reportedly hit back with a member filing a complaint that calls on the commission to disqualify current Prime Minister Prayuth for an alleged constitutional breach as well.
Thai junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha is known for losing his temper in public, but recently he has displayed a softer side amid speculation he may run for office in the first elections since the army seized power in 2014.
The general-turned-prime minister has appeared on state television cooking a chicken curry for villagers and riding a tractor with farmers. Last month, he released one of his trademark ballads, which has been played repeatedly on the radio.
"Don't let anyone destroy things like in the past ...
Future Forward party spokesperson Pannika Wanich said that in political circles it was considered a near certainty that Thai Raksa Chart would be dissolved.
But a greater worry for her was that the political turmoil would be used as a justification to call off or postpone the election.
“It is hard to predict Thailand’s political situation right now, but I would say it’s quite gloomy and we don’t expect a coup to happen anytime soon but there is quite a chance, maybe a 30 or 40 percent, of some political accident might happen,” she said.
Pannika said her party was focused on cooling tensions and restoring normality but that if another coup was attempted they would do whatever they could to prevent it.
“We cannot accept that - three coup d'etats in 12 years. That’s too much,” she said.
McLeod said a series of events over the weekend, including the deployment of police, had fueled the rumors.
“You know at the time it’s a very fast situation and I personally didn’t really hang my hat on there being a coup.” he said. “The authorities that were mobilized were police and they were mobilized for the purpose of crowd control, which is consistent with the fact that the EC (Election Commission) is in the process of dissolving the [Thai Raksa Chart] party and possibly Pheu Thai as well."
Pheu Thai is the major party controlled by Thaksin’s red-shirt movement and observers have suggested it could also be dissolved by the commission on the grounds that it is linked to Thai Raksa Chart.
A political earthquake has been triggered in Thailand with the nomination of princess Ubolratana Mahidol as a prime ministerial candidate for March election, overturning a Thai tradition that the royal palace plays no public role in politics.
Observers say the surprising announcement has completely upended the prospects for incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha to retain power — which he seized in a military coup in 2014.
"The [party] board agrees that the name of Princess Ubolratana, an educated and skilled person, is the most suitable choice," Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol
McLeod said it looked like Thaksin would pay a heavy price for the stunt.
“What we know is that Thaksin took a gamble and he lost. He took a high stakes gamble and he lost and he lost on something that was the wild card,” he said.
But Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University, suggested Thaksin may have got exactly what he wanted.
“If this would be a plot of Thaksin’s party to try and further politicize the monarchy then Thaksin has become successful. If this an attempt on the part of Thaksin to show there is a conflict within members of royal family, then again Thaksin has become successful,” he said.