The leader of the progressive Thai political party, which surprisingly topped its rivals in May’s general election, failed on Thursday in its initial bid by parliament to declare him the country’s new prime minister. The 500-seat House of Representatives And Limjaroenrat, beaten in the vote of a joint session of the 250-seat Senate, received 324 votes in the first round of voting, just short of the majority of 376 needed to become prime minister.
His Move Forward party finished first in the May 14 election and subsequently formed an eight-party coalition, which together won 312 seats, a healthy majority in the lower house. But strong opposition in the Senate, whose members are highly conservative and generally opposed to the reformist platform of Pita’s party, ruined his chances in the first vote. Only 13 senators supported Peeta’s bid, while 34 voted against him and 159 abstained.
Pita later told reporters that he had 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 liberals who support Move Forward and the highly conservative Senate is Pita’s party’s campaign pledge to amend a law that would make defaming the royal family punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
The monarchy is sacred to members of Thailand’s royal establishment. Even small reforms that could improve and modernize the image of the monarchy are anathema to them. The Move Forward coalition has proposed limiting the “royal defamation” law to only allow the royal family to lodge complaints and soften the penalty. Much of the debate ahead of Thursday’s vote concerned the law, also known as Article 112, which critics say is prone to misuse for political purposes.
The inconclusive finish of Thursday’s vote sets the stage for another vote, which is expected to take place next week. It was not immediately known whether Pita would make a second attempt, or step aside to try his luck at a candidate from another party in his coalition. Some detractors categorically stated that their party’s stand on Article 112 was the reason why they would not vote for a PITA-led government. The Phu Thai party, the second largest in the coalition with 141 House seats, may push ahead and try to garner support from enough senators.
Phu Thai used to be the most staunch opponent of the royal establishment. The party is closely associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist who was ousted in a 2006 military coup after his popularity rubbed royalists the wrong way. But the party is eager to return to power and has been less strident in supporting a reformist agenda that conservatives consider radical, though it would be considered moderate in Western countries. If Phu Thai fails to successfully put forward a prime ministerial candidate, the coalition will have to consider adding new members.
PITA faces additional challenges regardless of how the issue of the prime minister is resolved. On Wednesday, the state election commission said it concluded there was evidence he violated election law, and referred his case to the Constitutional Court for a decision. If the court accepts the case and finds him guilty, he could lose his House seat, be ousted from politics, and face a prison sentence. There were fears even before the election that Thailand’s conservative ruling establishment would use dirty tricks perpetrated by its political opponents to stay in power. For a decade and a half, it has repeatedly used courts and nominally independent state agencies like the Election Commission to issue controversial rulings to cripple or immobilize political opponents.
The alleged violations include undisclosed ownership of shares in the media company, which is prohibited by Thai lawmakers. Political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak described the controversial allegation and other legal complaints against Pita as “fictitious” and would not be tolerated by many, especially the voters who support him. A large number of Move Forward supporters, wearing the party’s signature orange colour, gathered outside Parliament following vote-by-vote proceedings on large screens. He expressed disappointment and anger at the final result, especially the lack of support from senators. “The Senate is not with the people. Elections mean nothing to them,” complained 42-year-old Nattapon Jangwangkau. “I don’t agree with this,” said 35-year-old Vipada Pimtare, who was crying in the rain. “I expected it to end today. Thailand should move on. They should not buy time like this.” People have chosen and they should abide by it.”