Thai lawmakers are gathering Thursday to select a new prime minister. A process whose outcome is far from certain even though the country’s most progressive party won both the popular vote. Moreover, most seats were in the House of Representatives in the most recent election.
The reformist Move Forward Party’s victory in the May 14 election appeared to spell an end to nine years of unpopular army-supported rule. Two months later, it is unclear if that mandate for change will be honoured.
Parliament is due to vote on whether to make Move Forward’s leader, 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, the Thai prime minister. His party captured 151 of the 500 House seats and has assembled a coalition government in waiting. The eight parties in the coalition won 312 seats combined, a healthy majority.
But on Wednesday, the Election Commission said it concluded there was evidence that Pita had violated election law. Referred his case to the Constitutional Court for a ruling. If the court accepts the case and finds him guilty, he could lose his House seat. Get kicked out of politics and face a prison sentence.
Immediate roadblock to Pita
As Pita entered Parliament ahead of the vote on Thursday, he told reporters: “I will do my best to live up to the hope and support that the people have given me.”
The more immediate roadblock to Pita taking power is that the prime minister is elected through a joint vote of the House and the 250-seat Senate. The members were hand-picked by the military-backed regime established after a 2014 coup. Pita, or any other candidate, needs a minimum of 376 votes to become head of government. Meaning he would probably have to shake loose a large number of votes from the Senate. Many of whose members appear openly hostile to him.
The biggest hurdle between the liberals backing Move Forward and the deeply conservative Senate is the campaign pledge of Pita’s party to amend a law. However, that makes defaming the royal family punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
The monarchy is sacrosanct to members of Thailand’s royalist establishment. Moreover, minor reforms that might improve and modernize the monarchy’s image are anathema to them. Move Forward’s coalition partners also have not endorsed the proposed legal change, and other parties ruled out joining the coalition over the idea.