The next King of Thailand, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, has long been notorious for his unpredictability – a reputation that appears deserved with his recent refusal to ascend the throne immediately after the death of his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Vajiralongkorn’s recalcitrance is particularly alarming, as the 2016 constitution, adopted in a referendum on August 7, is now awaiting royal approval. But will the new king do so?
A week-long throne vacancy has never happened in the history of constitutional monarchy in Thailand. Bhumibol was proclaimed king on the day his brother, Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, was found dead in his bedroom on June 9 1946.
Ananda’s proclamation as king had happened the same way, the day his predecessor abdicated the throne – even though he was a young boy of ten, and living abroad at the time.
‘The king is dead. Long live the king’
Following Bhumibol’s death, the Prime Minister of Thailand, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, announced on live television “The king is dead. Long live the king”. This formula is odd for Thailand, and a direct import from the Western doctrine of the two bodies of the king, developed in the late Middle Ages to consolidate the institution of the monarchy.
If Prayuth Chan-Ocha used this anachronistic phrase, it’s because it was needed to assert that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn would indeed accede to the throne as Rama X. Prayuth was trying to avert any speculation that the crown prince could be sidelined in the succession process.
For many years, rumours had spread that Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn who is more popular than the prince, could be crowned queen instead of her brother, or at least become regent until Vajiralongkorn’s son, Dipangkorn, 11, comes of age.
Speculation was rife that any delay in making Vajiralongkorn king after the announcement of the death of the Bhumibol would lead to chaos. The 2014 military coup was at least partly staged in order to manage a smooth handover and prevent any “succession crisis”.
A constitutional crisis
Succession seemed to be under control. But when Prayuth was granted an audience with Vajiralongkorn, the latter refused to become king, arguing he needed some time. This created a vacancy of power and made the President of the Privy Council, Prem Tinsulanonda, automatic regent.
A regent is a representative of a king in case of his incapacity or absence, and all the king’s powers are exercised by the regent. But, in the history of Thailand, there’s never been a regent without a king. What is particularly striking in the present situation is that Prem’s mistrust of Vajiralongkorn is well known.
The confusion over Vajiralongkorn’s ascension offers a glimpse of the even further erosion of the value of law in a country that has repeatedly violated its own laws and abolished its many constitutions in coups endorsed by the monarchy.
Since the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932, there have been 13 successful coups d'etat and 20 constitutions. On average, a constitution lasts for 4.5 years and there is a coup every 6.5 years.
Royal constitutional duties
We tend to forget that even in a constitutional monarchy, there are a lot of constitutional duties for a king, signing legislation into law being the most obvious.
Along with duties come constitutional powers – most are written in the constitution, such as veto power over legislation – but also conventional “rights”, such as the right to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. This famous formula was used by Walter Bagehot in his seminal work published in 1867, The English Constitution.
Thai constitutional lawyers, such as Bowornsak Uwanno, used the English doctrine and applied it to the Thai monarchy. Those conventional powers were widely exercised by King Bhumibol, to such an extent that the he was able to build for himself crisis powers through several political interventions, some more controversial than others.
In the least controversial instance, during the 1992 crisis – which saw a street confrontation between protesters and the military government – Bhumibol summoned both the leader of the protests and the military dictator Suchinda Krapayoon, and called for an end to the conflict. As a result, Suchinda resigned.
More controversial was Bhumibol’s speech to judges in April 2006 when he advised the courts to cancel a general election that had returned Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister, to power. The constitutional court did so, and paved the way for the 2006 military coup.
The cautious exercise of crisis powers by King Bhumibol was rarely overridden or disregarded by political actors. Given the fear surrounding the crown prince, one might expect that no prime minister, senator, or judge, would dare to challenge him once he is head of state and erratically uses his nominal powers, such as veto powers and the power to dissolve the legislative assembly.
The 2016 constitution tries to avert this type of anticipated crisis by giving permanent super-crisis powers to the constitutional court and maximum power to the army during a five-year transitional period. But the likelihood of clashes between the next head of state, the army and the constitutional court (all part of a deep state insulated from elected civilian control) remains high.
One thing is sure. As during the previous reign, the form of government will swing between that of full military dictatorship and “Eastminster”, a term coined by H. Kumarasingham to refer to India and Sri Lanka’s adaptation of the British Westminster model. The difference with Thailand is that in India and Sri Lanka, the head of state is elected. In Thailand, Eastminster means an imbalance of power in favour of the king and a general disregard for the law.
Uncertainty prevails, but what is certain is that the democratisation that started in 1997 and was halted a few years later by a military coup, will be even further delayed.