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Thailand: Front-runner Pita fails in PM bid

July 13, 2023

Thai lawmakers have failed to endorse Pita Limjaroenrat as prime minister in a first parliamentary vote. Despite his party's election victory, he is facing numerous hurdles in his bid for the premiership.

 Pita Limjaroenrat waving
Pita's Move Forward Party has a reformist agendaImage: JACK TAYLOR/AFP/Getty Images

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Thai election winners Move Forward, failed on Thursday in his initial bid to become Thailand's next prime minister.

Despite being unopposed, Pita did not secure the required endorsement of more than half of the bicameral parliament, with many lawmakers abstaining or voting against him.

The Thai parliament is expected to hold another vote next week, which Pita can contest if nominated again.

"I am not giving up," Pita told reporters, adding that he accepted the result of the first round of voting.

Pita's party had surprise election victory

In the mid-May general election, the Move Forward Party (MFP) won 151 of the 500 House of Representatives seats, and has since put together an eight-party coalition alliance that together won a strong majority of 312. 

But Pita requires a minimum of 376 votes from the 750-member bicameral parliament to become head of government.

His main challenge is that the 250-seat Senate is deeply conservative and many of its members are opposed to the MFP's reformist agenda.

The recent election was regarded as a major political turning point in Thailand, with the MFP's victory appearing to signal an end to nine years of unpopular army-supported rule.

What hurdles does Pita face?

Thai conservatives are dismayed by the MFP's campaign pledge to amend strict royal defamation laws that foresee prison sentences of three to 15 years for people convicted of defaming the Thai monarchy. MFP's allies have so far declined to endorse the plans, which are highly controversial in a country where the royal family has long been considered sacrosanct.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court accepted a case accusing Pita and his party of attempting to overthrow the monarchy with the planned amendments, putting the 42-year-old businessman at risk of parliamentary suspension.

The Election Commission has also recommended Pita's suspension from parliament over allegations he broke campaign rules amid allegations that he did not declare his ownership of media company shares, which are banned for Thai lawmakers. Pita has denied any wrongdoing but would face a potential prison sentence if tried and found guilty.

"There have been attempts to block, not to block me but block the majority government of the people from getting to run the country in various ways," Pita told ThaiRath TV on Thursday.

"This is quite normal for the path to power in our country ... I am encouraged and hopeful to fix things as they come until the dream of mine and the people can be reached," he added.

The legal challenges to Pita prompted hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators to gather in Bangkok, and more protests can be expected if Pita does not prevail in Thursday's vote, with many young people among his party's main supporters.

What happens now?

Now Pita has failed in his first bid, his coalition alliance must decide whether to back him again in another vote scheduled for July 19 or to put forward another candidate.

That candidate would likely come from the Pheu Thai Party, the MFP's top partner and political ally.

The party put forward several potential prime minister candidates this year, including Paetongtarn Shinawatra,the daughter of  former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist who was ousted in a 2006 military coup,

The country, which has experienced a dozen coups and regular political instability in the past century, could at any rate face weeks of deadlock and accompanying economic uncertainty if several sessions have to be tabled until a prime minister is finally chosen.

Now-caretaker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose United Thai Nation party finished fifth in the May elections, will remain premier until a new prime minister emerges. Prayut has announced his retirement from politics after that.

tj/sms (Reuters, AFP, AP)