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Another Royal Signal? A Shinawatra Wedding in Hong Kong and the Thai Elections

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

By Allen Hicken and Joel Selway

Picture: A Google Search of the Thai Princess Attending the Shinawatra Wedding in Hong Kong


The institution of the monarchy could help overcome traditional political divides in Thailand without requiring any official intervention into the elections. Ending the idea that one political side is anti-royalist may help Thailand’s dominant political party, Pheu Thai, overcome the non-democratic obstacles the junta has put in its way through the 2017 constitution.


Background

With Thailand’s first elections in eight years taking place tomorrow, the Media has been replete with analyses from numerous angles. One prominent institution in Thailand that has remained somewhat under the radar in the latest news coverage focused on political parties and the military is Thailand’s monarchy.

As a constitutional monarchy, the Thai Royal family is officially above politics. A month ago, the King reiterated this point by deeming the nomination of his older sister, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, as a candidate for Prime Minister as “inappropriate”. The Election Commission subsequently disqualified the Princess from the nomination and dissolved the nominating party, the Thai Raksa Chart party.

A point that particularly shocked observers of Thai politics is that the Thai Raksa Chart party is aligned with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from office in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile. Some analysts, including ourselves, wondered whether the Princess’ nomination, despite its short lifespan, may have sent a signal that the Thaksin camp was notanti-monarchy, as their opponents have often charged.


Yesterday, the Princess again made headlines by attending the weddingof Thaksin’s youngest daughter Paetongtarn "Ing" Shinawatra in Hong Kong. Occurring just two days before the General Elections, we revisit our earlier analysis that, regardless of its intentions--to which we cannot speak--the association of a member of the royal family with the Shinawatra family on the eve of election may help the electoral fortunes of Pheu Thai as Thais go to the polls tomorrow.


Electoral consequences

To test this assertion, we turn to a study we conducted just prior to Thailand’s last elections in 2011. Given strict lèse majesté laws, which make any attempt to “defame, insult, or threaten” the monarchy, researchers have been unable to ask explicit questions about attitudes toward the monarchy for fear that it puts their research subjects at risk of legal prosecution. Even if such an opinion poll was officially approved, however, researchers would have strong reasons to believe that few if any Thai citizens would answer such questions – and those who did would be unlikely to tell the truth.


To tackle these research dilemmas, we presented a nationally-representative sample of roughly 8,000 Thai voters with descriptions of hypothetical candidates. Roughly half of our sample was randomly selected into a control group in which there was no mention of the monarchy at all. The other half of our sample, our treatment group, saw a description of a hypothetical candidate that vowed to do everything in their power to protect the institution of the monarchy. This meant that we could see how candidates’ support for the monarchy affected their popularity without asking people to break lèse majesté laws. We then simply compared average support between the control group and treatment group.


We found that Pheu Thai candidates benefit from associating themselves with the monarchy. Most (though not all) of that support comes from those who stated a preference for Pheu Thai in the survey. So, does increasing favorability amongst their own supporters make any difference? It may do in tomorrow’s elections. Pheu Thai’s support in the North and Northeast seems to have been eaten into since the 2011 elections. Various polls have shown under 60% support in both those regions, about a 20% fall from 2011. Could this latest reminder of the party’s association with the monarchy help prior supporters return to the fold?


Summary

The Princess’s association with symbolic figures behind the Pheu Thai party, Thaksin and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, may help counteract the strong constitutional obstacles in Pheu Thai’s way in tomorrow’s election. The Princess’ appearance may also be indicative of a deeper desire by the monarchy to return to democracy. As David Streckfuss stated in the New York Times, these events seem to suggest perhaps two things: 1) “within the royal family a growing sympathy for a tranche of Thai society well beyond its traditional base,” and 2) “the monarchy’s willingness to listen to the majority.” However, just minutes after we posted the original article, news broke that the King had made an announcement seeming to push in the opposite direction of this signal by urging Thais to vote for "good people" (khon dee). In making this invitation the King quoted his Father, the late-King Bhumibol. While seemingly neutral and good advice, this label has been used in the past to describe traditional, conservative, and hyper-royalist leaders. Prayuth has used this language to justify the 2014 coup, as have military interveners in the past. The antithesis, bad people, is a label often thrown at elected politicians, especially the provincial godfathers (jao por) or heads of legitimate businesses in rural areas who dominated elections in the 1990s. Thaksin would fall in the latter category. An optimistic view of the statement is that it is just good, moral advice from the Head of State. The pessimistic view is that it is meant to send a signal of the King's preferences on the eve of the elections. Again, we cannot speak to the intentions, but our research shows that cues from candidates about their support of the monarchy definitely does matter. To the extent that it also works the other way around, that signals of support from the monarchy shape voters' opinions, these mixed signals are ones to pay attention to in the upcoming vote.