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Thailand’s Popular Politician Pita Cleared to Return to Parliament 

Former Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat reacts on the day Thailand's Constitutional Court delivers its verdict on his media shareholding case, in Bangkok, Jan. 24, 2024.
Former Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat reacts on the day Thailand's Constitutional Court delivers its verdict on his media shareholding case, in Bangkok, Jan. 24, 2024.

A Thai court on Wednesday said Pita Limjaroenrat, the nation’s most popular politician, did not break election rules by holding media shares while running for office, clearing him to return to parliament and potentially lead the country’s progressive Move Forward Party.

Pita, 43, had faced a ban from politics and even jail over holding shares in an inactive media company called iTV. Under Thai law it is illegal to be involved in media businesses when running for office.

His party has maintained that the case was politically motivated by the royalist establishment to block his progress to the prime minister’s office, after Move Forward emerged with the most seats from last May’s general election.

Judge Punya Udchachon said iTV was “not operating as a media company” when Pita’s name was forwarded for election and “holding the shares did not break the law … [therefore] his status as a member of parliament has not ended.”

First hurdle

It is the first of two major legal hurdles in a week for the reform-minded Move Forward, which stunned the conservative establishment by winning the most seats in last year’s poll, with its promise to break up business monopolies and create a more equal society.

The party could be dissolved if a court ruling on January 31 goes against it over one of its key proposals: urging an amendment to the strict royal defamation law that punishes criticism of the monarchy with jail time.

Before Wednesday’s ruling, Pita told reporters a negative outcome would only be a detour in the long journey to reforming Thailand.

“Regardless of what the verdict is today, we’re working for you. … We’ll continue fighting for you,” he said.

Cheers of “Pita for prime minister” went up from party supporters gathered near the court as word of the favorable ruling filtered out.

“I’m happy to know that Pita will return to the parliament immediately. If I could, I would escort him to parliament myself today,” Sakon Kamtaerong, 59, a supporter wearing a Pita mask, told VOA. “But I also want someone to pay for keeping him hanging on this long.”

Pita’s political survival means he may reclaim his place as the leader of the opposition after he stood aside pending the court ruling.

Chatree Choomchee, a government worker, said he was overjoyed at Pita’s return to politics.

“Now let’s hope the party survives too,” he said.

Legal roadblocks

The case against him was brought by the Election Commission shortly after the election, which exposed the deep unpopularity of the generals in charge at the time.

They alienated the young, the urban, the rural poor and even some of their own royalist base, turning millions of voters toward the new, radical politics of Move Forward.

Harvard-educated Pita was on track to become prime minister before the EC case triggered a suspension from parliament last July.

That gave the conservative-appointed Senate an excuse to vote against his bid for premier and support their preferred candidate.

Srettha Thavisin, a 61-year-old property tycoon, emerged as prime minister, forming a government in coalition with former administration figures but dominated by his party, Pheu Thai.

He has struggled to win over a skeptical public, especially Move Forward voters who say he represents the old order, despite his promises to renew Thailand and deliver greater wealth for all.

Thailand’s arch-royalist establishment has spent nearly 20 years taking down democratically elected governments with coups or court rulings.

Move Forward represents possibly the greatest long-term challenge to the royalists yet, experts say, with its popular calls for deep structural reforms of Thailand’s system of power.

The party’s previous incarnation, Future Forward, was banned by a court in 2020, alongside its founders, paving the way for Pita to emerge as Thailand’s new political star.

Thailand’s electorate, especially the young who grew up under military or quasi-military governments, are tired of establishment tactics to close down reform, Move Forward lawmakers say.

“If our party’s dissolved next week, there’ll be another party,” Bangkok lawmaker Bhuntin Noumjerm told VOA. “You can kill a man, you can’t kill an idea. People have already lost faith in our legal system over and over, so if they want to dig their own grave … by all means.”