BANGKOK/HONG KONG -- The Thai princess who caused a splash when she was briefly nominated as a candidate for prime minister attended the wedding of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's daughter in Hong Kong on Friday, just as Thailand readies for its first election since the military took power in 2014.
Princess Ubolratana was named in February as the prime minister candidate of a new pro-Thaksin party, until her younger brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, quickly shot down the idea. The election will be held on Sunday.
According to several opinion polls, the Pheu Thai Party, a more established pro-Thaksin party which was ousted from the government by the military in 2014, is expected to win the greatest number of seats but fall short of a majority. It still commands much support among farmers in the north and northeast. But a redrawing of districts, an attempt by the ruling miltary junta to curb established parties, should dent its seat count.
Thaksin is apparently leaning on his close ties with the princess in hopes of shoring up support with voters who revere the royal family.
Meanwhile, the Democrat Party, which has traditionally been opposed to parties backed by Thaksin, remains popular in urban areas and in the south. The Palang Pracharat Party is mounting a challenge against these two established players with the backing of Thailand's power brokers, including the military, government officials and the wealthy, in hopes of keeping current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in power.
It is unclear how the dynamic will affect the choice of the next prime minister. The lower house of parliament used to choose the prime minister. But the new constitution which took effect in 2017 under the junta's rule is now also requiring approval from the military-appointed upper house. If the entire upper house unites behind Prayuth, the pro-military party needs only 126 out of 500 seats in the lower house to maintain its control.
Former Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan, the prime minister candidate for Pheu Thai, says this system could distort the will of the people.
Still, the junta appears to have overestimated the reach of its favored Palang Pracharat. Polls suggest it has little chance of winning 126 seats on its own, meaning the next prime minister may not be decided until parties negotiate after the election.