By Nontarat Phaicharoen, Wilawan Watcharasakwej, and Kunnawut Boonreak
Pita Limjaroenrat’s second bid to become Thailand’s next prime minister was struck down on Wednesday, with pro-royalist members of Parliament sinking his nomination not long after a court suspended him as a lawmaker.
The twin blows effectively squashed Pita’s bid to become Thailand’s first pro-democracy prime minister after nine years of rule by an administration with deep military ties dating to a coup in 2014.
After the order by the Constitutional Court was delivered to Parliament, Pita briefly addressed lawmakers before leaving the debating chamber to applause from MPs.
“I think Thailand has undergone a profound transformation and will never be the same again after May 14,” the 42-year-old said. “The people have already achieved a victory halfway through, with the other half remaining to be conquered.
“Although I can no longer fulfill my duties, I humbly request my fellow parliamentarians to persist in supporting one another in the service of our nation, thank you.”
His Move Forward Party was the top vote-getter in the May 14 general election, in which pro-military and pro-royalist parties were trounced.
Saying he would abide by the court’s order, Pita bade the house speaker farewell “until we meet again.”
“And I would like to ask all the MPs to use the parliament as a place to take care of the people. I believe Thailand has changed for good since May 14,” he said.
After removing his parliamentary badge, he put it down and walked away.
With the setbacks that appeared to doom Pita, a large crowd of his supporters gathered outside the parliament building and iconic Democracy Monument in Bangkok to voice their anger at these developments that thrust their country into political limbo.
Earlier in the week, Pita announced he would end his prime ministerial quest and step aside for another candidate from his eight-party alliance to be nominated for PM, if he failed in a second round of parliamentary voting for the top post in government.
The next date for a vote to determine who will be Thailand’s new prime minister has been tentatively set for July 27, some MPs said.
Pita had been expected to contest a second and final vote for the prime ministerial post on Wednesday after he failed last week in his initial attempt to win the backing of Thailand’s 749-seat bicameral Parliament.
But his second nomination was rebuffed even before a vote could happen. Pro-royal MPs challenged Pita’s eligibility to be nominated twice, arguing that parliamentary rules did not allow a failed motion to be resubmitted to the House of Representatives under Article 41.
Following nearly eight hours of debate after he exited the parliamentary floor, the House of Representatives voted 395 to 312 in favor of invalidating his nomination for prime minister.
“The activation of the parliamentary rule number 41 is validated,” House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha said. “Hence, the renomination of Pita in this parliamentary session is undoable.”
Rival lawmakers outside Pita’s eight-party alliance and most of the unelected, pro-royal Senate fiercely oppose Move Forward’s progressive campaign agenda, including its plans to amend laws shielding the monarchy.
Thailand’s conservative establishment has pulled out all the stops to halt Pita’s ascent to the premiership.
Earlier on Wednesday, Thailand’s Constitutional Court agreed to suspend Pita as a member of Parliament, deeming that he had violated election laws for owning stock in a media company.
Thailand’s Election Commission had referred the case to the court to decide whether he should be disqualified as a lawmaker after finding evidence that he knowingly applied to be an MP candidate while holding shares in defunct media company iTV – which is prohibited under the electoral rules.
In a 7-2 decision, the Constitutional Court decided to temporarily halt Pita from performing his duty as a parliamentarian, it said in a statement. Pita, who has denied any wrongdoing, has 15 days to respond.
Despite an overwhelming vote for change in the May election, Tuesday’s events have highlighted the enduring political legacy of the 2014 military coup and fanned fears of a return to sometimes-violent street clashes that roiled Thailand in 2020-21.
“It is now apparent that winning people’s trust is not enough to govern the nation,” Pita wrote on his Facebook after the court ruling. “Worse, it is not even enough to warrant a second nomination.”
A similar fate befell Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the former leader of the now disbanded Future Forward Party. After his progressive party posted strong numbers in the 2019 general election, the Constitutional Court suspended Thanathorn as an MP before that year’s parliamentary vote for prime minister. His party was later forcibly dissolved.
Pro-democracy protesters began to gather outside Parliament after the Constitutional Court decision, while a second group started to coalesce around the Democracy Monument in the late afternoon, amid a heavy police presence.
“I believe more than half of Thai people are cursing the senators and the court,” Sherry Chanthavong, a 38-year- old Bangkok resident, told BenarNews as she joined the protest at the monument.
“The parliamentarians should have respected the people’s representatives. Do they know how to spell democracy? It is not a game but the livelihood of the people.”
Pita was the leading candidate for PM because his party won 151 parliamentary seats in the election, outpacing the favored opposition Pheu Thai Party, which came in second with 141. The six other members of the coalition pushed Pita’s support to 312.
In the first round of voting, Pita and the alliance fell well short of the 375 votes needed to clinch power in the House of Representatives.
Rules enshrined in the constitution drafted after a 2014 military coup meant Pita had to overcome 249 votes held by the junta-appointed Senate, Parliament’s upper house.
Earlier in the day, before Thai lawmakers convened, a group of Southeast Asian MPs urged members of the Thai Senate “to consider their duty to the people and the greater good of Thailand when they cast their vote for prime minister.”
“The actions of the vast majority of the senators in the last prime minister vote show their utter disregard and lack of respect for the will of the people, which was communicated very clearly in the ballot box. It is evident that the immense power given to these unelected senators is at odds with any definition of a real democracy,” Charles Santiago, a former Malaysian MP and co-chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement released by the group.
“Further attempts to block the formation of a new government by the winning parties would only lead to unrest and instability,” APHR also warned.
With Pita’s leadership aspirations seemingly over, attention now shifts to Pheu Thai, another party in Pita’s eight-party alliance that is expected to field a PM candidate in his place.
“Pita must recognize that his prospects of becoming Prime Minister have diminished, though it’s not definitively concluded,” Thannapat Jarernpanit, a professor at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, told BenarNews.
“As for proposing Pita as a candidate in the future, it’ll be a repeated motion, and he won’t make it through the parliamentary approval,” she said.
Pheu Thai campaigned with three prime ministerial candidates: ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, and party advisers Srettha Thavisin and Chaikasem Nitisiri.
Paetongtarn said on Monday that Srettha, a Thai property tycoon, would be nominated as the party’s prime ministerial pick.
A Pheu Thai-led coalition would scale back some of Move Forward’s more liberal campaign promises that proved a hit with younger Thai voters, including reforming the royal insult law.
But experts have raised the possibility that the eight-party coalition could splinter if the attempts to pitch a Pheu Thai candidate also fail.
Among the possibilities, Pheu Thai could break away from Move Forward and try to form a government with the help of Bhumjaithai, a conservative party, Thannapat said.
“The situation seems to favor the Pheu Thai Party in leading the government’s establishment. They can’t deny that they’ll have to negotiate with the Bhumjaithai Party due to the need for the senators’ [support].”
Harry Pearl contributed to this report.