The real winner of Thailand's general election will be the country's king

Royal drama, exiled opponents and bitter rivalries make for good headlines, but the bigger story is how the nation's monarch has steadily increased his powers

FILE- In this May 12, 2017, file photo, Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn addresses the audience at the royal ceremony in Bangkok, Thailand. Late Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, King Vajiralongkorn issued a decree stating that no member of the royal family should be involved in politics, quashing a bid by his older sister to run for prime minister in next month's elections. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit, File)
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When voters in Thailand go to the polls next month, in a general election the ruling military junta has been promising but continually delaying for the past four years, they will have their say. Whether that will represent a step towards meaningful democracy, however, is more doubtful than ever.

Up until the past couple of weeks, the assumption was that the incumbent prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha, already had the result sewn up. The new head of government must command a majority of the two houses of parliament – the Senate and the House of Representatives – combined. Owing to the fact that under the 2017 constitution, the 250 members of the senate will be nominated by the junta, Mr Prayut’s Phalang Pracharat party and its allies had only to win 126 of the seats in the 500-member lower house to be assured of victory.

All this was upended, however, by the announcement that King Vajiralongkorn's elder sister, Princess Ubol Ratana, was to be the prime ministerial candidate for the Thai Raksa Chart party. This, like the Pheu Thai party, is viewed as a proxy for the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose political vehicles have won every election since 2001, but have consistently been ousted from government by the military-royalist elite, who see him as a corrupt, authoritarian populist.

Commentators instantly assumed that the king – who, as crown prince to his long-serving father King Bhumibol, appeared to get on well with Mr Thaksin – had given the nod to this arrangement. It was seen as a possible bridge over the divide between Mr Thaksin’s “red shirt” supporters and their “yellow shirt” opponents, who have clashed on the streets of Bangkok in relatively recent years.

Princess Ubol Ratana technically lost her royal status after marrying an American in the 1970s, but in a country whose monarch is regarded as semi-divine, she commanded sufficient devotion to sweep the board. Her popularity as a singer and actress certainly wouldn’t have hurt, either. Given Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws – under which any criticism of the royal family is punishable – there was even doubt as to whether it would be legal to question her or any policies she might put forward. It looked like the game was over for the generals.

Then, just as suddenly, came another announcement. The king declared that as a "high-ranking member of the royal family" it was "improper and highly inappropriate" for his sister to stand for office.

That marked the end of her candidacy, and possibly that of the entire Thai Raksa Chart party, which could be dissolved by the country’s constitutional court. It also crushed Mr Thaksin’s hopes of returning from self-imposed exile without facing time in jail.

But what does this all mean for Thailand? Firstly, it is not yet clear whether the king assented to his sister’s move, only to back down under pressure from the junta, or if Mr Thaksin simply overplayed his hand and lost badly. Either way, the longstanding issue of what to do about Mr Thaksin’s popularity has not been resolved. He and his proxies keep winning elections, but their governments have been overturned with sometimes the flimsiest of justifications. In 2008, for instance, Samak Sundaravej was ordered to resign as premier for having hosted four TV cooking shows while in office.

To outside observers, it may seem obvious that Mr Thaksin has to be part of a democratic settlement to end the stream of coups that have plagued Thailand since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. However, the extent to which he is perceived as illegitimate is not widely understood abroad. In addition to the antipathy of the nation’s political elite, corruption scandals and accusations of abuses of power while in office destroyed his support within Bangkok’s middle classes. Some south-east Asia analysts have even said that his 2006 ousting was a “coup for democracy”.

Many believe that Mr Thaksin and his sister Yingluck – who also served as prime minister from 2011 to 2014 – effectively bought the votes of the rural poor and should stand trial for that if they return home. Ms Yingluck also fled the country in August 2017 during a legal trial for criminal negligence in the handling of a rice subsidy scheme that allegedly cost Thailand $8 billion. She was found guilty and sentenced in absentia to five years in jail.

However, since neither wishful thinking nor exclusion from office has made them disappear, I remain convinced that if Thailand is ever to make proper democratic progress, some accommodation must be reached with Mr Thaksin and his followers.

The other main consequence of this drama for Thailand has also been largely overlooked. The reign of King Vajiralongkorn represents a very rare example in the past century of a constitutional monarch increasing their powers. In fact, the very term “constitutional monarchy” is misleading in this context. During his 70 years on the throne, King Bhumibol built up enormous influence. Far from ceding any of that, King Vajiralongkorn has weakened the wing of the army loyal to Mr Prayut by appointing Apirat Kongsompong, who is part of the rival King’s Guard faction, as chief of the armed forces. The king has also taken personal control of the $30 billion-plus Crown Property Bureau, and made changes benefiting him to the 2017 constitution before agreeing to sign it. If it was embarked upon with the king’s knowledge, Princess Ubol Ratana’s brief candidacy could have been another warning shot to Mr Prayut: “I might let Mr Thaksin back in, so watch it.”

In 2006, the journalist Paul Handley published a widely acclaimed biography of King Bhumibol that was immediately banned in Thailand. Its title is The King Never Smiles. As the general election approaches, the nation's democrats also have few reasons to be cheerful. King Vajiralongkorn, on the other hand, is probably grinning broadly. In private, of course. Because, as he says, the monarchy is officially "above politics".

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum