Thai leadership hopeful hits familiar roadblocks in search for power

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This week, Thai leadership hopeful and Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat hit several obstacles in his quest for the prime ministership.

On Wednesday, Thailand’s Election Commission announced there was evidence that Pita violated electoral law. The violation allegedly involves an undeclared ownership of media company shares, which is prohibited for members of parliament.

There is also an allegation that Pita and his party may have broken the law by its proposal to amend Thailand’s strict legislation against criticising the monarchy. The Commission has referred his case to the country’s Constitutional Court and recommended the leadership hopeful be suspended as a member of parliament.

In a statement, the electoral body stated that “the Election Commission has considered the issue and perceives that the status of Pita Limjaroenrat is considered to be voided, according to the Thai Constitution.”

Pita has dismissed the allegations, claiming the shares were transferred and the company is not an active media organisation. But the stakes are high. He not only faces disqualification from high office, but up to 10 years jail and a 20-year ban from politics if found guilty.

Pita’s hopes were dashed further on Thursday when the military-dominated parliament then voted down his candidateship for prime minister. The vote required majority of the 749 seats in the combined sitting, with the aspirant only managing 324 votes. The next vote is due to be held on 19 July.

This is a severe reality check for the leadership aspirant, particularly after his party’s historic election victory in May, dubbed the most consequential since the 1970’s. The victory came off the back of wide-spread support from Thailand’s youth, who are frustrated by draconian laws and military dominance since the 2014 coup.

The party secured 151 seats in the 500-strong parliament after running on a reformist platform promising to tackle the military’s hold on Thai politics, break up powerful monopolies, legalise same-sex marriage and end the lese-majesty laws prohibiting criticism of the royal family.

The elections were the first since the pro-democracy protests in 2020, which saw tens of thousands of Thais demonstrate on the streets on Bangkok against the military and monarchy, particularly the lese-majesty laws.

After the election, Move Forward had formed a powerful eight-party coalition of like-minded, progressive parties controlling 313 seats in the new parliament. But this was evidently not enough to take power.

This is a tough lesson in Thai politics for Pita, a relative newcomer, and a bitter blow for the millions of Thais who voted for meaningful political change.

But it was aways likely the old guard of military-backed politicians would fight back. Pita and his coalition represent a new Thailand, one that is democratic and free and one that has no place for the military.

With Pita’s chances of becoming prime minister increasingly bleak, he now has a difficult choice to make.

Pita and his party could cede to pressure and drop its promises of reform. It already removed any mention of the lese-majesty laws when it went into coalition with its now political partners.

But this has its own challenges. A backdown on meaningful political change would be seen as an outright backflip and rejection of the mandate given to them by millions of Thais seeking change. This could see the coalitions support melt away overnight. However, there is a good chance the parliament would still reject his candidateship anyway.

Or Pita could ask Thais to hit the streets in the hope of building pressure through protest. There is a threat that this could result in a violent backlash from the military, but it could also galvanise the support of millions of people. This would be reminiscent of the protests of 2020 and would see Thais on the streets demanding that their future is not stolen again by the military. This would be a high-risk approach and its outcome is very uncertain.

Regardless, there appears a strong chance that the old guard will attempt to remove Move Forward from politics all together. This would be a repeat of 2020, when Move Forward’s predecessor, Future Forward, was forcefully dissolved and its leaders banned from politics for a decade by the constitutional court. There current allegations levelled at Pita appear to also be politically motivated.

Regardless of what action Pita takes, there is a clear obligation on the current administration to respect the will of the people it claims to represent.

The best and right course of action is for the parliament to vote for the candidate nominated by the party or parties with the most votes, which is Pita. Anything else would be a severe dereliction of their duty and would further damage democracy in Thailand.

After a decade of military rule, it is time Thais had their voices heard.

Otherwise, democracy in Thailand is in trouble.

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