Thai party that nominated princess faces court decision

BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai court said Thursday that it will decide whether to dissolve a political party that broke tradition by nominating a member of the royal family as its candidate for prime minister in next month's general election.

The Constitutional Court made the announcement a day after the Election Commission recommended that the Thai Raksa Chart Party be dissolved for its Feb. 8 nomination of Princess Ubolratana Mahidol.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a royal order hours after his sister's nomination, stating that the nomination was inappropriate and unconstitutional because the monarchy was above politics. The party responded by professing its loyalty to the monarch and accepting his order.

Dissolving the party would likely increase already sharp political divisions and deepen concerns about the fairness of next month's poll.

The Constitutional Court said in a statement that the charges are being forwarded to the party, which will have seven days to respond. It scheduled the next hearing for Feb. 27.

The Election Commission said the party should be dissolved because its candidate was "in conflict with the system of rule of democracy with king as head of state."

Ubolratana's bid to become prime minister was particularly notable because she allied herself with Thai Raksa Chart, part of the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and is loathed by many royalists and others in the country's traditional establishment, who accuse him of corruption and disrespect for the monarchy.

Thai Raksa Chart's chief strategist, Chaturon Chaisaeng, said the party is ready to show it acted with good intentions in nominating Ubolratana.

Ubolratana's candidacy could have pitted her against the preferred candidate of the pro-royalist military, junta leader and current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup that overthrew an elected government led by Thaksin's sister.

The unprecedented nomination and the fallout from its failure have reignited longstanding political tensions in Thailand, which has experienced more than a dozen years of political strife that has sometimes spilled into street violence. Following the 2014 coup, the junta used strict laws against protests and political activity to keep the tension from bubbling to the surface.

The March 24 election will be the first since the coup.

Prayuth is considered the front runner, largely because election laws enacted under his government skewed the odds against any party without the backing of the military and the conservative royalist establishment. Under the military-drafted constitution, the junta appoints all of the upper house, which along with the lower house gets to vote for the prime minister.

The Constitutional Court is one of the most conservative institutions in Thailand and has consistently ruled against Thaksin and his allies.

If Thai Raksa Chart is dissolved, its board members could be banned from politics for 10 years or more.

Although a royal order does not carry the full weight of law, the great respect given to the monarchy means that failure to abide by an order would be difficult to defend in the courts, which are conservative and generally seen as defenders of the throne.

Paul Chambers, a political scientist at Naraesuan University, said Ubolratana's quick political disqualification was an example of the monarchy's influence over the Thai bureaucracy.

"The extremely quick and formalized political disqualification of the royal eldest sister by the Election Commission and its equally rapid recommendation to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart party tell us that traditionally slow-moving bureaucratic forces in Thailand have no bearing on issues touching the monarchy," Chambers said in an email.