The rather unusual move by a member of Thailand’s royal family to announce a bid for the office of Prime Minister has ignited greater interest in the country’s general election. Ubolratana Rajakanya, King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s sister, subsequently had her nomination withdrawn — but the fact that the prospect drew a public disapproval from the King is an indication of how closely the palace is tracking the contest. The larger question concerning the March 24 poll is the prospect of Thailand’s credible return to civilian rule, after the 2014 military coup that deposed the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. The military general-turned-Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is contesting as the candidate of the Palang Pracharat party, known for its pro-military and pro-palace leanings. The constitution drafted by his ruling National Council for Peace and Order, and ratified in a 2016 popular referendum, introduced a voting system that provides for a wholly nominated Upper House of Parliament and allotment of seats to army officers. King Vajiralongkorn had granted approval for its promulgation only after withholding some other controversial provisions. The March general election has been long overdue, as General Prayuth repeatedly deferred the dates since seizing power in 2014. Moreover, investigations into social media content from the new Future Forward party have added to worries about the junta silencing Opposition voices. While the bid to hand over power to an elected government may seem well-intended, the power given to the military in the legislature remains a concern.
Ms. Ubolratana had entered the fray with the Thai Raksa Chart party, which is linked to exiled former Prime Ministers, the telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck. The Shinawatras are perceived to be a challenge to the Bangkok elite, including the palace and the military. But despite being evicted from power in coups, they still hold sway among the predominantly rural electorate. Till now, the military had struggled to dent their chances sufficiently, and Mr. Shinawatra or his proxies won every election since the early 2000s. The new constitution ensures that the military will be a crucial determinant in a democratic transition. King Vajiralongkorn’s public response to his sister’s decision to contest the election may also affect the chances of Mr. Shinawatra’s party. Ms. Ubolratana had relinquished her royal title in the 1970s, but her candidature sparked speculation about an understanding between the palace and Mr. Shinawatra. The March election is being watched keenly across the region. The second largest economy in Southeast Asia, Thailand this year assumes the presidency of ASEAN, that sets a broad economic and political agenda for member-states. A number of them are so-called guided democracies, with a pre-eminent role for the military.