BANGKOK (AP) — The leader 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. Only 13 senators supported Pita’s bid, while 34 voted against him and 159 abstained.
Pita told reporters afterward that he “accepted” the vote but was not giving up. He said the result was below expectations and thanked the 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. Even minor reforms that might improve and modernize the monarchy’s image are anathema to them. Move Forward’s coalition has proposed to limit the “royal defamation” law to allow only the royal family to lodge complaints and soften penalties.
Much of the debate that preceded Thursday’s vote concerned that 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 Article 112 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 most bitter 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 he 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.