By Wilawan Watcharasakwej and Kunnawut Boonreak
Pita Limjaroenrat conceded Monday that a defeat in a second parliamentary vote for prime minister set for July 19 would end his quest to become Thailand’s first pro-democracy leader in nine years, but he’d make way for another opposition candidate.
After meeting with partners in a progressive coalition on Monday, the Move Forward Party leader said that in the interest of the Thai people, he would step aside so that a nominee from the Pheu Thai party could be elected prime minister, if he lost in the next round of voting.
Also scheduled for Wednesday is a decision by the Constitutional Court on whether Pita should be indicted for owning shares in a now-defunct media company – a violation of Thai election laws, although the judicial decision won’t affect his nomination for PM.
The eight-party pro-democracy alliance, which includes Pita’s Move Forward Party, the highest vote-getter and Pheu Thai Party, which came in second in the May 14 general election, met on Monday to decide who to nominate in the second round of voting for prime minister.
“In regards to the upcoming July 19 [parliamentary meeting] the eight parties agreed to nominate me, Pita Limjaroenrat, as the candidate for Thailand’s 30th prime minister,” he said at a press conference.
“In order to safeguard this eight-party MOU, I would step aside and let the second party try to be the manager of the next cabinet as well as Article 272,” Pita said about a scenario where he is not elected on Wednesday, although a date for a third round of parliamentary voting has yet to be announced.
Pita was referring to a memorandum of understanding with seven other parties to stay united and fight the parties in the previous conservative, pro-royal regime.
Article 272 is a clause in the 2017 military-backed constitution that gives unelected Senators, who were appointed by the junta, the power to vote for the prime ministerial candidate. On Friday, Move Forward proposed amending the law to strip the pro-royal Senators of that power.
“[I]f there’s no improvement – substantial improvement – then I think I have to think about this country, think about the vacuum,” he told reporters.
In the first round of voting last Thursday, Pita failed to win the requisite votes needed to become PM.
He received 324 votes, falling short by 51 votes needed of the 749-member bicameral parliament. Only 13 senators voted for him.
A majority of the Senate, including active armed forces’ chiefs and retired officers, were either absent or voted against Pita as PM. Move Forward’s campaign platform called for reforming laws shielding the monarchy and amending a draconian royal defamation law, Article 112.
Pita faces the same hurdles on Wednesday, this time with the optics potentially complicated by the Constitutional Court’s decision on his stock ownership in the media company.
Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, leader of Thai Liberal Party, an ally of Move Forward, said over the weekend he had invited two more parties from the conservative Prayuth side – Democrat Party (25 seats) and Chat Thai Pattana Party (10 seats) – to join the pro-democracy alliance. As of Monday evening, neither had responded.
Even if they agreed to join, the alliance would have needed 51 more seats, which they would not bring.
The most viable option would be the Bhumjaithai Party with 71 MPs, but bringing it in is an impossibility, one analyst said.
It is apparent Bhumjaithai will not join the pro-democracy side, said Nuttakorn Vititanon, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University. A part of the outgoing ruling bloc, Bhumjaithai has said it would not support a PM who seeks to amend the law against defaming the monarchy.
“In the upcoming vote, it is hard for the coalition to change the minds of senators, it needs more than 50 votes,” Nuttakorn said.
“Pita’s chances of becoming a prime minister are remote and far from reality.”
As for Pheu Thai, it has three prime ministerial candidates at its disposal who could fill the void should Pita fail, observers said.
These candidates are ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, and party advisers Srettha Thavisin and Chaikasem Nitisiri.
Chiang Mai University’s Nuttakorn said the eight-party coalition could splinter if the attempts to pitch a Pheu Thai candidate also fail.
“Prayuth is not there. Pheu Thai could explain that Prayuth called it quits,” Nuttakorn said, referring to a possibility that Pheu Thai could ally with arch-nemesis and the United Thai Nation Party, which won 36 seats.
Until recently, UNTP was headed by former Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the ex-army chief who led a military coup in 2014 that toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra. Prayuth announced last week that he was retiring from politics.
“Chances of a polar swing are not impossible.”