Tuesday, 26 September, 2023

Thai reformist faces second uphill battle in bid to become PM

Reformist Pita Limjaroenrat will again ask Thailand's parliament to endorse him as prime minister Wednesday but with little chance of wooing the military-appointed senators who scuttled his first bid.

Pita's Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats in May elections, buoyed by the hopes of young and urban Thais wearied by nearly a decade of army-backed rule, but its efforts to form a government have stumbled.

Thailand's conservative establishment vehemently opposes the party's pledge to soften the kingdom's strict royal defamation laws, and Pita's first tilt at the premiership fell 51 votes short last week.

Parliament opened to weigh his candidacy again on Wednesday but few believe the 42-year-old Harvard graduate has managed to turn the numbers in his favour.

He has vowed to step aside to make way for a coalition partner to form a government if his second attempt fails.

"Pita is less likely to get the vote passed," Napisa Waitoolkiat, a political analyst with Naresuan University, told AFP.

Thailand's senate is stacked with military appointees -- a reliable brake on the kind of liberal reforms sought by MFP and its progressive voter base.

Only 13 of 249 serving senators voted for Pita last week and Napisa said his only likely pathway to power was to successfully court many more members of the chamber.

"And I don't think the senate is going to be brave and courageous enough to do that," she said.

Pita was optimistic on Monday that several MPs who missed the vote could be persuaded to rally behind him.

"We still are talking to find more support," he told reporters.

- 'You cannot allow that' -

But other roadblocks have been thrown in front of his candidacy.

A possible motion by military-aligned lawmakers could see parliament rule Pita ineligible to be considered a second time.

The Constitutional Court will be in session as parliament meets, and may decide to proceed with a case about whether Pita should be disqualified from parliament entirely for owning shares in a media company.

Doing so is prohibited by Thailand's constitution, even though the station has not broadcast since 2007. Pita, wealthy from a family-run agrifood business, has said the shares were inherited from his father.

If the case does proceed, Pita could be given an interim suspension from parliament while his candidacy for prime minister is being considered.

The court has also agreed to hear a case alleging that MFP's campaign promise to amend Thailand's royal defamation law is tantamount to a plan to "overthrow" the constitutional monarchy.

Pita's party has ignored strident opposition to its pledge to revise the law, which can allow convicted critics of the monarchy to be jailed for up to 15 years.

Napisa said MFP's reformist platform also posed a threat to powerful, family-owned business monopolies that play an outsized role in the kingdom's economy.

"If you are those people, you cannot allow that," she said.

- 'Justification for crackdown' -

If Pita's next bid fails, the coalition backing him is expected to fall in line behind property tycoon Srettha Thavisin, potentially relegating MFP to serve in opposition.

Srettha's Pheu Thai party is seen as a vehicle for the Shinawatra political clan, whose members include two former prime ministers ousted by military coups in 2006 and 2014.

But as a successful entrepreneur liked by business leaders among the Thai elite, the 60-year-old is seen as a potential compromise that would smooth the way for the coalition to take office.

Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, a former Thai army chief who served as number two in the junta that took power in 2014, has also been floated as a candidate by parliament's military bloc.

Thai voters roundly rejected army-backed parties in May's election, and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the prospect of a Prawit premiership could spark a backlash in a country that is no stranger to political unrest.

"If Move Forward is excluded, there will likely be protests... if protesters overreact, a Pheu Thai-led government would have some justification for a crackdown."