Thailand’s Parliament Set to Choose Prime Minister, but it Might Not Be Election Winner

Thailand’s Parliament Set to Choose Prime Minister, but It Might Not Be Election Winner
 Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Move Forward Party and top winner in the May's general election gestures at the Parliament, in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, July 13, 2023. Thai lawmakers are gathering Thursday to select a new prime minister, a process whose outcome is far from certain even though the country's most progressive party won both the popular vote and the most seats in the House of Representatives in the most recent election. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

BANGKOK (AP) — Thai lawmakers are gathering Thursday to select a new prime minister, a process whose outcome is far from certain even though the country’s most progressive party won both the popular vote and the most seats in the House of Representatives in the most recent election.

The reformist Move Forward Party’s victory in the May 14 election appeared to spell an end to nine years of unpopular army-supported rule. Two months later, it is unclear if that mandate for change will be honored.

Parliament is due to vote on whether to make Move Forward’s leader, 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, the country’s prime minister. His party captured 151 of the 500 House seats and has assembled a coalition government in waiting. The eight parties in the coalition won 312 seats combined, a healthy majority.

But on Wednesday, the 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.

As Pita entered Parliament ahead of the vote on Thursday, he told reporters: “I will do my best to live up to the hope and support that the people have given me.”

The more immediate roadblock to Pita taking power is that the prime minister is elected through a joint vote of the House and the 250-seat Senate, whose members were hand-picked by the military-backed regime established after a 2014 coup. Pita, or any other candidate, needs a minimum of 376 votes to become head of government, meaning he would probably have to shake loose a large number of votes from the Senate, many of whose members appear openly hostile to him.

The biggest hurdle 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 over the idea.

Chonlanan Srikaew, the leader of the coalition partner Pheu Thai Party, nominated Pita to start Thursday’s proceedings, which include six hours of debate before an up-or-down vote for prime minister. If Pita does not get the required number, another round of voting is expected to be held next week.

If Pita cannot win over enough senators, his options appear nil. The options for the eight-party coalition as a whole appear more viable.

One option is for the Pheu Thai Party, which used to be the royalist establishment’s top rival, to put forward one of its members as a candidate for prime minister. 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.

Thaksin-backed parties finished first in every election from 2001 until this past May but were blocked or forced from power each time. The 2014 coup seized power from a government that Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, had formed.

Pheu Thai enrolled three of its members as potential prime minister candidates this year, including Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra. Real estate developer Srettha Thavisin, another of the trio, is considered more likely to have his name put forward if Pita isn’t elected.

If the coalition cannot win enough support because Move Forward is a part of it, it could be dropped and other parties recruited to replace it. This could involve ceding the prime minister’s seat to a newly enlisted coalition partner, such as the Bhumjaithai Party, which polled third in the May election and secured 71 House seats. The party’s leader, Anutin Charnvirakul, was health minister in the outgoing government and has made no secret of his political ambitions.

If Pita and Move Forward somehow prevail — and it could take several votes over a period of weeks — their political survival still would sit on a knife’s edge.

There have been fears 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 to issue questionable rulings to cripple or sink political opponents.

The alleged violation against Pita involves undeclared ownership of media company shares, which are banned for Thai lawmakers. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, describes the charges as “bogus,” and says many people will be unwilling to accept them.

“It all depends on how far the royalist conservative establishment wants to go after Pita and prevent a democratic outcome,” Thitinan said.

Michael Montesano, a Thai studies expert who is an associate senior fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, said Thailand’s political system should “move into closer correspondence with the realities of Thai society and with the aspirations of its younger, well educated members.”

“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,” he said.


BY GRANT PECK Associated Press