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Thai party fighting for survival after princess's nomination

BANGKOK (AP) — The Thai political party that took the unprecedented and ultimately unsuccessful step of nominating a member of the royal family as its candidate for prime minister was fighting for its political life Wednesday, while the princess herself appeared to criticize the fallout.

The country's Election Commission said it recommended the Thai Raksa Chart Party be dissolved because its prime minister candidate was "in conflict with the system of rule of democracy with king as head of state." The recommendation was forwarded to the Constitutional Court, which said it would consider Thursday whether to accept the case.

The party on Feb. 8 named Princess Ubolratana Mahidol its candidate for prime minister for a general election next month. But her older brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn, issued an edict just hours later saying it was inappropriate and unconstitutional.

Ubolratana's bid was particularly notable because she allied herself with a party that is part of the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and is loathed by many royalists and others in the country's traditional establishment.

The whirlwind events have reignited longstanding political tensions in Thailand, which is still run by a military junta that seized power in a 2014 coup, ousting the government of Thaksin's sister. Following the coup, the junta used strict laws against protests and political activity to keep the tension from bubbling to the surface.

Ubolratana, who is active on Instagram with more than 100,000 followers, late Tuesday posted a message reflecting on the events. "I am sorry that my honest intentions to help work for the country and all Thais have resulted in a problem that should not arise in this day and age. #howcomeitsthewayitis," said her message.

After the king overruled its candidate, Thai Raksa Chart avowed its fealty to the king and its acceptance of his order, but its opponents urged its dissolution. Before the Election Commission made its recommendation, party leader Preechapol Pongpanit called for it to hear the party's defense.

"If they don't let us tell our side, it'd be as if we were tied by our hands and feet," he said. The party announced its legal team would submit a letter to the Constitutional Court. The court is one of the most conservative institutions in Thailand and has consistently ruled in favor of the royalist point of view during political unrest over the past decade.

Ubolratana's candidacy could have pitted her against the preferred candidate of the pro-royalist military, junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup. Prayuth was considered the front runner, largely because election laws enacted under his government skewed the odds against any party running without the support 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 prime minister.

The changes were the latest attempt at quashing the influence of Thaksin, whose allied parties have won every national election since 2001 and remain popular with the rural majority for their populist policies such as universal health care.

Three pro-Thaksin parties running in this year's election were seen as posing the greatest challenge to Prayuth and pro-military parties, and recruiting the glamorous 67-year-old Ubolratana to their cause was initially seen as boosting their odds. They appear to have assumed that since she lost her formal royal titles in 1972 when she married a foreigner — an American whom she has since divorced — that the strictures against royal involvement in politics would not apply to her.

The action against Thai Raksa Chart could strengthen both the pro-Thaksin and anti-Thaksin sides, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political science professor at Ubon Ratchathani University. Thaksin's base could be energized by the perception that their side is facing unfair persecution, he said, while royalists might be stirred to carry on the long-running fight against him.

However, dissolving Thai Raksa Chart would almost surely cost the Thaksin side much-needed seats in the election. It would also deepen concerns about the fairness of the March 24 poll, the first since the coup.

Those concerns were heightened Tuesday when the country's telecoms regulator suspended the operating license of a TV station linked to Thaksin, citing national security concerns. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission said two news programs on the station spread information that caused public confusion and divisiveness.

Voice TV's chief executive officer, Makin Petplai, said he would go to court to challenge the suspension of its over-the-air broadcasts for 15 days. Voice TV, which also maintains an online presence, is owned by Thaksin's son and has faced several previous suspensions.

Thai journalists associations in a joint statement called for the telecommunications regulator to reconsider the suspension. They said the suspension order violates constitutional guarantees of press freedom, adding that the regulators should be especially supportive of media organizations during the election campaign to bring "an atmosphere that is supportive and open to the expression of opinions by the media and the people."

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