“It’s a complicated situation,” said Patrick Jory, an expert on the Thai monarchy at the University of Queensland.
The Crown Prince
Under the 1924 Palace Law of Succession, the Thai king has absolute power to designate his successor.
Bhumibol’s only son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, was officially appointed crown prince and heir apparent on December 28, 1972, at the age of 20.
In the event of the king’s death, parliament should invite the designated heir to immediately assume the throne. However, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Thursday that Vajiralongkorn “needs time to jointly mourn with the Thai people” before he succeeds his father.
The Privy Council
The Privy Council is an elite body of advisers, appointed by the king, which has significant powers with regard to royal appointments and the law of succession.
King Bhumibol’s last council, which remains in place until Vajiralongkorn appoints his own, is headed by former Prime Minister and army general Prem Tinsulanonda.
“(Prem) has been a key player since the 1980s and was the king’s right hand man,” said Jory.
Other members of the council include fellow former prime ministers Thanin Kraivichien and Surayud Chulanot, and Chalit Pukbhasuk, a former acting chairman of the Council for National Security, the junta that overthrew Thaksin.
When Vajiralongkorn does assume the throne, he is likely to replace the council with his own supporters, Jory said.
As a constitutional monarchy, power in Thailand officially lies with the government, with the king as head of state.
However, ISEAS warned that thanks to sweeping new powers granted the military by the new constitution “the traditional elites would in effect have design new mechanisms to seize power without resorting to a military coup.”