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Threat of Thai Party Leader's Disqualification Triggers Protest Fears


Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat greets supporters, July 9, 2023, during a rally to thank voters ahead of the vote for a new prime minister on July 13, in Bangkok, Thailand.
Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat greets supporters, July 9, 2023, during a rally to thank voters ahead of the vote for a new prime minister on July 13, in Bangkok, Thailand.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court said Wednesday that it would consider whether to suspend Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat as a lawmaker on the eve of a parliamentary vote where the youthful reformist is a leading candidate to become prime minister.

The decision came after a complaint was lodged with the Election Commission of Thailand that alleged Pita was unqualified to run as a lawmaker because of his past ownership of shares in a media company, which violates electoral rules.

On Wednesday, the commission recommended that he be disqualified, citing evidence. If he is tried and convicted, Pita could be banned from politics and face prison.

The Move Forward Party described the decision as unlawful, saying Pita wasn’t asked to provide more evidence or given an opportunity to defend himself.

Under election rules, a candidate is prohibited from being an owner or shareholder of a media company. Pita, 42, says he had owned shares in Independent Television (iTV), which were inherited from his father, but he has transferred the shares from his ownership. Independent Television closed in 2007.

Also under election rules, a suspended MP can still run for prime minister.

In response, dozens of Move Forward Party supporters turned out to protest in downtown Bangkok, some wearing the party’s orange color and holding up three-finger salutes.

Activist Arnon Nampa, who is facing criminal charges for calling for monarchy reform, told the crowd that the salute is a signal for change, and that if Pita and the Move Forward Party failed to be elected by Parliament, street protests would return as early as next week.

In 2020 and 2021, Thailand was rocked with anti-government and monarchy reform protests, mainly led by Thai youths. Clashes with police were common, with hundreds of protesters arrested.

The Move Forward Party has urged supporters to wear orange and gather in front of Thailand’s Parliament on Thursday when the National Assembly is scheduled to vote for prime minister.

Election leaders

Pita and the Move Forward Party were top vote-getters in a general election in May with 151 of the 500 seats of Thailand’s Parliament Lower House.

After its victory, the party formed a coalition with seven other opposition parties to reach a total of 312 seats in the Lower House. To secure the prime ministership, they need 64 more votes to reach a majority in a joint session with the 250-member military-appointed Senate.

But experts said Pita’s time could be up, given the allegations.

Napon Jatusripitak, a political scientist at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said the threat of disqualifying Pita as a lawmaker might mean the Senate would delay its long-awaited decision on whom to endorse to lead Thailand.

“It appears that the Senate will exploit this opportunity to justify abstaining in tomorrow’s prime minister selection," he told VOA. "Senators might justify their decision to abstain by emphasizing the importance of ensuring certainty regarding Pita’s suitability for leadership. They may argue that his ongoing court proceedings and the possibility of future disqualification raise concerns that need to be addressed before making a selection.”

Napon added that the election commission’s decision seemed to indicate Pita would not be allowed to govern Thailand.

“These developments highlight the centrality of legal instruments and referee bodies as mechanisms for upholding the established political order in Thailand. This sends a clear and unmistakable signal that Pita will not be allowed to govern, despite having a clear popular mandate,” Napon said.

Thailand’s Democrat Party, which has 25 elected MPs, said its members would abstain in Thursday’s vote, Reuters reported. But the Pheu Thai Party, a coalition member, has told voters it will support the Move Forward Party.

The Constitutional Court also agreed to consider a complaint that the Move Forward Party’s pledge to amend Thailand’s lese-majeste law, which outlaws criticism of the monarchy, amounts to an “overthrowing of the democratic regime with the king as head of state.”

"The Move Forward Party and the social movements that propelled it to election victory may have shaken the tree, but it seems that no one will be allowed to enjoy the fruits,” Napon said.