epa06291938 Thai Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya (L), elder sister of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, marches with royal guards during the royal procession transferring the royal relics and ashes of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok, Thailand, 27 October 2017. Thais bid their final farewell to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in an elaborate royal funeral ceremony. King Bhumibol died at the age of 88 in Siriraj hospital on 13 October 2016 after 70 years on the throne. EPA-EFE/DIEGO AZUBEL
Ubolratana Rajakanya at the funeral of her father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in October 2017

The king of Thailand has labelled his sister’s bid for political office as “highly inappropriate”, in effect placing a veto on her candidacy hours after the kingdom was shocked by the announcement that Ubolratana Rajakanya would run for prime minister.

The monarch’s sharp words threw Thai politics into uncertainty after it was announced that the 67-year-old daughter of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej would run as the prime ministerial candidate for a party affiliated with Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister, in the March 24 vote.

“Involvement of a high-ranking member of the royal family in the political system, regardless of in which way, contravenes longstanding traditions, customs, and national cultures,” he said in a statement read out on Thai television. “Hence, to do so is highly inappropriate.”

The Thai Raksa Chart party she was nominated by is one of four in the running allied with Mr Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the former populist prime ministers, currently in exile, whose “redshirt” followers have in recent years battled with their “yellow-shirt” opponents on Bangkok’s streets.

Ms Ubolratana relinquished her royal titles in 1972 after marrying an American, Peter Jensen, but is still widely revered in Thailand, and referred to as a princess. “The Thai Raksa Chart party is deeply honoured to have received [Ms Ubolratana’s] kindness in accepting the party’s nomination to be prime minister,” the party said in a statement.

A member of the Thai Raksa Chart said that a senior member of its executive committee approached Ms Ubolratana this week and asked her if she wanted to run. “Her name popped up as one of the potential candidates,” said Umesh Pandey, an MP candidate with the party and former Bangkok Post editor. “Once she approved, they took her on.”

Separately on Friday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of Thailand’s governing military junta, said he, too, would contest the election as a prime ministerial candidate for the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party, throwing his hat in the ring before Friday’s deadline for candidates to register.

The election is being watched intently both in Thailand and overseas and marks the return to electoral politics for a country with a history of political unrest and violence since the 2014 military coup.

The poll will be held under a new constitution that was meant to favour the junta by allowing it to appoint the 250 members of the upper house, favouring small parties over Mr Thaksin’s camp, which has won every election in Thailand during the past two decades.

Despite their exile, Mr Thaksin and his sister Yingluck wield significant political power behind the scenes. Ms Ubolratana is friendly with them both and was photographed with them at the football World Cup in Russia last year.

Application form of candidate for Prime Minister, Thailand's Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, is seen at the election commission office in Bangkok, Thailand February 8, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Ms Ubolratana's application form to register as a prime ministerial candidate being handled at the election commission office in Bangkok on Friday © Reuters

Analysts said that the princess’s candidacy under the banner of one of the pro-Thaksin parties might throw off previous assumptions that the pro-junta PPP held the upper hand in the vote.

“This will further complicate Thai politics in which the faultline has been drawn on the monarchy,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. “The era of the so-called monarchy above politics is officially over.”

Ms Ubolratana was born in Switzerland, while her late father was studying there, and earned a degree in biochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a masters degree from UCLA. She had three children with Mr Jensen, one of whom died in the 2004 south-east Asia tsunami.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is due to be officially crowned as Rama X in May, is the country’s head of state and holds significant power, as well as property and stock holdings that make him one of the world’s richest monarchs.

However, the royal house has until now kept a public distance from electoral politics. One Singapore-based political risk analyst, who declined to be quoted for fear of potential legal repercussions in Thailand, said: “Princess Ubolratana may on the one hand be perfectly placed to bridge the longstanding ‘red/yellow divide’, but on the other, her becoming prime minister could raise serious constitutional questions.”

Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté laws prevent individuals or media, including the Financial Times, from airing information seen as insulting to the monarchy, and is punishable by long prison sentences.

The Thai king took direct control of the royal properties held in the Crown Property Bureau last year, which include stakes in the Siam Cement Group and Siam Commercial Bank, the value of which Fortune magazine estimated at more than $30bn in 2012.

Additional reporting by Don Weinland in Hong Kong

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