The bitter battle to name Thailand’s next prime minister took a major turn Wednesday as Parliament voted to deny Pita Limjaroenrat, whose progressive Move Forward Party won a surprise victory in May’s election, a second chance to be confirmed for the post.
Pita had assembled a coalition of parties holding a majority in the House of Representatives. But his nomination for prime minister was defeated in a joint vote of the House and Senate last week, with conservative military-appointed senators mostly refusing their support.
A joint session debated Wednesday whether Pita could be nominated for a second time, and House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha then put the question to a vote. A motion to deny Pita a second chance was passed by a vote of 395 to 312 with eight abstentions. The meeting of Parliament was then adjourned with no immediate indication of when it would vote again on a new prime minister.
It was the second blow suffered by Pita on Wednesday, after the Constitutional Court suspended him from Parliament pending its ruling on whether he violated election law.
The court’s announcement would have still allowed Pita’s nomination and selection as prime minister. That is now ruled out by Parliament’s action, and Pita remains in legal jeopardy, subject to a possible jail term if the court rules against him.
Pita, during a debate on the issue of whether he could legally be renominated, said he would comply with the court’s order.
“I think Thailand has changed, and will never be the same, since May 14,” said Pita, referring to his party’s election victory. “The people have won half the way. There’s another half left. Although I still won’t get to perform my duty, I’d like to ask all members to help take care of the people from now on.”
“Thank you very much,” he said before leaving the chamber to the applause of his supporters.
Pita’s chances of being named prime minister had already looked slim. He was rebuffed by all but 13 members of the appointed Senate, which along with the military and courts represents the country’s traditional conservative ruling class.
His party has pledged to amend a law that makes it illegal to defame Thailand’s royal family. Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, is often abused as a political weapon.
Move Forward, whose agenda appealed greatly to younger voters, also seeks to reduce the influence of the military, which has staged more than a dozen coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and big business monopolies.
Pita had announced Monday that he would allow a candidate from another party in his coalition to try for the post if he failed to attract substantially more votes on Wednesday. The media’s focus has already shifted to possible replacements for Pita as the nominee.
The candidate will come from the Pheu Thai party, which won 141 seats in the election, just 10 less than Move Forward’s 151.
In last week’s vote of the House and Senate, the eight-party coalition received 324 votes, well short of the 376 needed to take power.
Pita was Move Forward’s only candidate, while Pheu Thai registered three names: real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin; Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup; and Chaikasem Nitsiri, the party’s chief strategist.
Srettha, who has emerged as the favorite, entered active politics only last year and on Tuesday won Paetongtarn’s endorsement.
If a Pheu Thai candidate cannot win parliamentary approval, there will be pressure to assemble a new coalition, adding less liberal partners while dropping Move Forward because its position on royal reform is seen as the stumbling block to a compromise.
Move Forward has declared it has no interest in serving in a government with parties tainted by links to nine years of military-backed rule.
“I think they would be willing to step out of the picture themselves and still feel like they are honoring what they announced to voters in the pre-election campaigning,” said Saowanee T. Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.
She said the issue of reform of the monarchy “makes politics going forward very hard.”
“I still don’t see how we can get these roadblocks out of the way,” Saowanee said.
The prospect of Pita being denied the prime minister’s job has riled his supporters and pro-democracy activists, who called for demonstrations on Wednesday. About 600 gathered peacefully at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a traditional protest venue, by Wednesday evening.