- Overview:Political Earthquakes
Thailand's March 2019 general election was not a normal poll that involved only contesting political parties: other significant actors on the country's political scene helped shape the electoral outcome. These actors include the monarchy and the army, whose strong alliance has become the most formidable force in Thai politics.
The 8 February "political earthquake"—which saw the announcement of Princess Ubolratana's prime ministerial candidacy and its rapid retraction after the intervention of the King—showed that the so-called "network monarchy"—an influential political network of unelected members of the elite centred on the monarch—has undergone a significant transformation.1 On 8 February, Thai Raksa Chart, a party allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, nominated former Princess Ubolratana Mahidol, daughter of the late King Bhumibol, as its prime ministerial candidate. However, that night, the King issued a proclamation stating that her candidacy was "highly inappropriate" and "violated the royal tradition" since members of the royal family were supposed to remain above politics.2 The proclamation was followed by the Election Commission of Thailand's (ECT) decision to deny Ubolratana permission to run and the Constitutional Court's controversial ruling to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart over its selection of the former princess for the premiership. This shocking political deal made between Ubolratana and Thaksin—who was ousted by the military in 2006 and remains in self-imposed exile overseas—revealed the continuing influence of the former [End Page 163] prime minister as well as the fractured condition of the network monarchy. It further indicated the new terrain of Thai politics, both institutionally and ideologically. The direct involvement of members of the royal family in electoral contests was unprecedented in Thai history. This political earthquake stirred intense public discussion on the place of the monarchy in Thai politics and the inner workings of the royal family.
The military also exerted a strong influence during the election campaign. General Apirat Kongsompong, the arch-royalist Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army (RTA), made no attempt to hide his political bias against the anti-junta political parties. When questioned about Pheu Thai's campaign pledge to cut the country's defence budget, Apirat responded by saying that "they [Pheu Thai] should listen to the song Nak Paen Din [burden of the land]".3 Nak Paen Din was a propaganda song popular with Thailand's right-wing movement in the 1970s which incited violence against the student-labour-farmer progressive movement. Furthermore, at the height of the campaign, General Apirat ordered 800 senior military officials to attend a publicized oath swearing ceremony where they vowed only to "serve a government that is loyal to the monarchy".4 A week after the elections, he warned that "those who graduated from abroad shouldn't bring extreme leftist ideology to topple the Thai democratic regime with the monarchy as head of state".5 Although General Apirat did not single out any political party, his remarks were clearly directed at the Future Forward Party, which had campaigned strongly on an anti-military and anti-establishment platform.
Two days prior to the election, Thaksin orchestrated another symbolic political move. On 22 March, he invited Princess Ubolratana to preside over his daughter's high-profile wedding in Hong Kong, and then released photos of himself and the princess embracing each other. This so-called "Hong Kong effect" angered the establishment and conservative Thais who viewed the relationship between the exiled former prime minister and the princess as unacceptable and a deliberate provocation. A day later, and just hours before the polls opened, the King issued a rare statement urging Thai voters to elect "good people" to rule the country. Subsequently, the election commission president and RTA chief urged voters to carefully consider the King's words and follow his advice in order to maintain peace and stability.6 In Thailand, "good people" is understood as code for anti-Thaksin groups and politicians. The [End Page 164] involvement of the monarchy, princess, military and Thaksin turned this election into a form of ideological contestation rather than a competition between alternative policy platforms.
The parties which participated in the elections can...