The head of the progressive Thai political party that outpaced its rivals to a surprise first-place finish in May’s general election failed Thursday in his initial bid to have Parliament name him the country’s new prime minister.
The vote of a joint session of the 500-seat House of Representatives and 250-seat Senate saw Pita Limjaroenrat win 324 votes in the first round of balloting, short of the majority of 376 needed to become prime minister.
His Move Forward Party finished first in the May 14 election and afterward assembled an eight-party coalition that together had won 312 seats, a healthy majority in the lower house.
But strong opposition in the Senate, whose members are overwhelmingly conservative and generally opposed to the reformist platform of Pita’s party, seemingly doomed his chances in the first vote. Senators are not directly elected but selected by a committee that was appointed by the military, in what analysts see as a fail-safe to prevent any candidate at odds with Thailand’s powerful army from becoming prime minister. Only 13 senators supported Pita’s bid, while 34 voted against him and 159 abstained.
Pita told reporters afterwards that he “accepted” the vote but was not giving up. He said the result was below expectations and thanked those senators who voted for him.
The biggest area of disagreement between the liberals backing Move Forward and the deeply conservative Senate is the campaign pledge of Pita’s party to amend a law that makes defaming the royal family punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
The monarchy is sacrosanct to members of Thailand’s royalist establishment, and even minor reforms that might improve and modernize the monarchy’s image are anathema to them. Move Forward’s coalition partners also have not endorsed the proposed legal change, and other parties ruled out joining the coalition because of the idea.
Much of the debate that preceded Thursday’s vote concerned the lese majeste law, also known as Article 112, which critics say is abused for political purposes.
The inconclusive finish to Thursday’s voting sets the stage for another ballot, which is expected next week. Whether Pita will make a second effort or step aside to let a nominee from another party in his coalition try their luck was not immediately known.
Some opponents explicitly said his party’s stand on the 112 issue was the reason they would not vote for a government led by Pita. The Pheu Thai Party, the second biggest in the coalition holding 141 House seats, could step up and try to win support from enough senators.
Pheu Thai used to be the royalist establishment’s top rival. The party is closely affiliated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist who was ousted in a 2006 military coup, in part because his popularity rubbed royalists the wrong way. But the party is anxious to get back into power, and less strident in supporting a reformist agenda that conservatives deem radical, though it would be considered moderate in Western countries.
Should Pheu Thai fail to successfully push through a prime minister candidate, the coalition would have to consider taking on new members.
Pita, regardless of how the prime minister issue is settled, faces additional challenges.
On Wednesday, the state Election Commission said it concluded there was evidence that Pita had violated election law, and referred his case to the Constitutional Court for a ruling. If the court accepts the case and finds him guilty, he could lose his House seat, get kicked out of politics, and face a prison sentence.
There had been fears since even before the election that Thailand’s conservative ruling establishment would use what its political opponents consider to be dirty tricks to cling to power. For a decade-and-a-half, it has repeatedly utilized the courts and supposedly independent state agencies such as the Election Commission to issue controversial rulings to cripple or sink political opponents.
The alleged violation involves undeclared ownership of media company shares, which are banned for Thai lawmakers. Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak describes the charge and other legal complaints against Pita as “bogus” and something many people, especially voters who backed him, would be unwilling to tolerate.
“It all depends on how far the royalist conservative establishment wants to go after Pita and prevent a democratic outcome,” he said.
Depending how they are resolved, the efforts to block Pita and Move Forward could prove dangerous and cause Thailand unnecessary pain, said Michael Montesano, a Thai studies expert who is an associate senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.
“At the end of the day, the political system and those who would dominate need to move into closer correspondence with the realities of Thai society and with the aspirations of its younger, well-educated members,” Montesano said. “The biggest question is whether this transition will be painful and even violent, or whether it will be constructive and thus serve the country’s future prospects.”