Junta chief’s bid for PM intact after whirlwind week in Thai politics

LOPBURI, Thailand (AFP) – Junta Chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s grip on power was tossed into doubt by the political cameo of a princess, but a week later his ambitions to rebrand as a civilian leader appear back on track, a survivor – for now – of Thailand’s treacherous politics.

Princess Ubolratana’s candidacy for premier for a party aligned with billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, appeared to have kicked over a totem of Thai politics: that the military alone is the unassailable partner of the monarchy.

Minutes later Prayut, a former army chief who seized power in 2014, accepted the nomination for prime minister by a junta-linked party, threatening to put him on an electoral collision course with a royal.

In a country where the public rarely gets a read on the backroom power plays of the elite, much of Thai social media erupted in glee at the supposed fall from favour of the gruff, hectoring junta chief.

Rumours of an impending coup against Prayut and his junta spun out.

But hours later the political game turned on its head.

Ubolratana’s younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, blocked her “highly inappropriate” move into frontline politics with a rare statement publically exposing divisions inside the palace.

The Thaksin-aligned Thai Raksa Chart party which proposed her is now on a fast-track to dissolution by the courts for “hostile action to the constitutional monarchy”, threatening to take with it the electoral aspirations of the Shinawatra camp.

That has left Prayut still very much in power – and closer than ever to becoming prime minister after the March 24 poll.

“I ask everyone to keep smiling,” Prayut said on Thursday as he attended an emergency exercise at Special Forces command base in Lopburi, central Thailand.

Earlier he paid homage to a towering portrait of the king. Throughout the day he was accompanied by army chief Apirat Kongsompong – the new top military man appointed by the king.

After nearly five years in power the 64-year-old Prayut, still draws loyalty from many arch-royalists for his anti-Thaksin stance.

He toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister.

Since then he has tried – with mixed results – to expunge the clan’s influence from Thai politics, where the siblings remain vastly popular among the poor despite both being in self-exile to avoid jail terms.