BANGKOK (AP) — The leader of Thailand’s Move Forward Party, which won a surprise first-place finish in May’s general election, is expected to have a last chance Wednesday to get the country’s parliament to confirm him as the next prime minister after he was rebuffed in a first round of voting.
Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat fell short last week when he failed to get enough support from the non-elected Senate, whose members made clear they would not vote for him because of his party’s platform.
The party campaigned with a promise to try to amend a law that makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten Thailand’s royal family. Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, is abused as a political weapon.
The Senate’s members were appointed by a military government rather than elected and are considered, along with the army and the courts, as serving as the conservative royalist establishment’s bulwark against change.
Move Forward, whose agenda appealed greatly to younger voters, also seeks reforms that would 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 is not guaranteed to get another chance at securing a needed majority in a combined vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There first needs to be a ruling on whether he can legally receive a second nomination for the prime minister’s post, which is not clear.
House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha is set to decide the matter after a scheduled debate. He was elected to the House from one of the smaller parties in the eight-party coalition backing Pita’s bid but has said he must consider the arguments for and against re-nominating Pita.
If Pita is disqualified, it is unclear whether Wednesday’s vote for prime minister will proceed. If a vote is held but fails to confirm Pita, it also is unclear whether a planned third round of voting would take place Thursday.
Pita faces the prospect of additional bad news on Wednesday. The Constitutional Court is set to decide whether to accept a referral from the state Election Commission for a ruling on whether Pita violated election law and whether he should be suspended from his duties as a member of parliament in the meantime. When and whether the court would rule on either point is not known.
Pita said Monday said he would stand for prime minister again this week but declared he would allow a candidate from another party in his coalition to try for the post if he failed to attract substantially more votes than last week. There is little to suggest that he would gain many, if any, more senators this time around.
The media’s focus has already shifted to the putative replacement for Pita as nominee for prime minister.
He or she would come from the Pheu Thai party, which won 141 seats in the election, just 10 less than Move Forward’s 151. The eight-party coalition seeking to take power won 312 House seats in all, a majority of elected lawmakers.
However, confirming a new prime minister requires a vote of a joint sitting of the lower house and the Senate. The coalition mustered only 324 votes last week, well short of the minimum 376 it needed.
Pita was Move Forward’s only candidate, while Pheu Thai registered three names: real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin; Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. who was ousted by a 2006 military coup; and Chaikasem Nitsiri, the party’s chief strategist.
Paetongtarn was touted as the party’s top prospect during the election campaign, but Srettha has emerged as the favorite. He entered active politics only last year, and on Tuesday won a public endorsement from Paetongtarn.
She mentioned his business acumen and experience, which are seen as Srettha’s strongest selling points to steady an economy which has had trouble bouncing back from the coronavirus pandemic.
If neither Pita nor a Pheu Thai candidate can 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 reforms is seen as the stumbling block to a compromise.
For its part. Move Forward has declared it has no interest in serving in a government with parties tainted by links to the nine years of military-backed rule now ending, so it may be more comfortable in opposition.
“I think they would be willing to step out of the picture themselves and still feel like they they are honoring what they announced to voters in the pre-election campaigning,” Saowanee T. Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand, said.
She said she was hopeful but pessimistic since the issue of reforms to 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 already riled his supporters and pro-democracy activists, who have called for demonstrations on Wednesday.