Thailand’s Aspiring Prime Minister Disqualified Amidst Second Failed Investiture

Thailand's aspiring prime minister, Pita Limjaroenrat, faces disqualification as the Constitutional Court rules in favor of alleged electoral rule violations. The country grapples with institutional instability and political tensions.

Thailand faced another episode of institutional instability as the country’s aspiring prime minister, Pita Limjaroenrat, was disqualified as a member of parliament by the Thai Constitutional Court. This decision came as the parliament was in the process of debating his second attempt to secure the prime ministerial position.

The leader of the Move Forward Party (MFP) had experienced a crushing defeat last week, failing to gain the simple majority of support from both MPs and senators, despite his resounding victory in the elections, garnering over 14 million votes. Pita Limjaroenrat had formed a coalition government with seven parties, but it collapsed primarily due to the veto from the appointed members of the Upper House, who were handpicked by the current acting Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, a former coup leader. The conservative elites in Thailand view the young entrepreneur and politician as a dangerous revolutionary due to his promises of democratic reforms that could challenge even the untouchable institution of the monarchy. They were unwilling to grant him access to power.

Arriving at the Thai Parliament early in the morning, Limjaroenrat knew that his chances for a successful second vote were slim. Following last Thursday’s defeat, his coalition began to crumble, and the second most-voted party in May’s election, the populist Pheu Thai of the Shinawatra family, was secretly negotiating a Plan B that involved one of their candidates seeking the prime ministerial position with the support of conservative and ultra-monarchist factions, as well as military backing. Aware of his precarious situation, Limjaroenrat declared earlier this week that he would step back if he failed to secure the necessary support in Parliament. However, he did not anticipate the Judiciary dealing a severe blow by disqualifying him even before the vote.

Temporarily suspended from his parliamentary seat, Limjaroenrat was caught on television cameras handing over his credentials as a parliamentarian and leaving the chamber with resignation. He politely asked all members of the Hemiciclo to “use the parliamentary system to take care of the people.”

Around 150 pro-Pita protesters gathered at the Parliament’s gates to express their disappointment. Some threw plastic bottles at the building, while others released orange smoke canisters, symbolizing the Move Forward Party. The party’s chosen color, orange, is a blend of yellow, representing pro-monarchy sentiment in Thailand, and red, which has been used by citizens in pro-democracy protests in recent years.

With the progressive leader absent from the Parliament, the debate on his investiture continued. Unlike the Spanish system, the Thai electoral system does not require the prime minister to be a member of Parliament. However, ultimately, Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid for a second vote was rejected with 395 votes against and 312 in favor.

“It is evident that the people’s vote is not enough to govern the country,” declared the fallen politician in a message posted on his Instagram account.

The Constitutional Court suspended the aspiring prime minister with five votes in favor and two against after a complaint was filed against him for allegedly violating electoral rules by running for office while being a shareholder in a media company, which is prohibited. In this case, the television channel in question ceased operations in 2007. The election winner explained that the shares were part of his late father’s estate and were transferred to the family circle after his death. He merely managed them as an executor. Many analysts argue that the complaint is part of the witch hunt conducted by the country’s elites, led by the military establishment and the high Buddhist hierarchy. They opposed Limjaroenrat’s reformist measures, particularly his desire to amend the draconian law of lese-majesty, which imposes harsh prison sentences on anyone daring to criticize the royal family. If Limjaroenrat is found guilty in the ongoing judicial process, he could face 20 years of political disqualification and 10 years in prison.

“Do not yield to the obstacles that prevent the nation from breaking free from the chains that have halted the country’s democracy. Do not stop because rules and regulations have been created to favor the authoritarianism that hinders the country’s true development for the people,” wrote Kannavee Suebsang, the Secretary-General of the Just Party, upon learning of Limjaroenrat’s disqualification, voicing the frustration felt by millions of Thais witnessing how their democratic expression at the polls clashes with the forces of conservatism determined to maintain a strong status quo.

Thailand has experienced continuous coup d’états and pronouncements since the 1940s, preventing the consolidation of a democratic regime. The most recent coup occurred in 2014, when the military regained power. It was only this past May when Thais could once again participate in elections with guarantees. However, the deliberate obstruction by those refusing to accept the results – opposition parties secured 70% of the votes – continues to obstruct progress.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, massive protests took place in Thailand, mainly led by tens of thousands of young students demanding the restoration of freedoms with slogans like “Down with the dictatorship, long live democracy!” The marches saw unprecedented criticism directed at the monarchy, currently headed by the controversial King Maha Vajiralongkorn. While the institution is not under immediate questioning, more and more Thais seek to break free from the taboos that shield the monarchy, making it untouchable.

Pita Limjaroenrat campaigned on a promise to reform the law of lese-majesty, seeking to reduce the severe penalties imposed by the norm for any gesture or comment deemed offensive to the monarchy. He also aimed to limit the right to file defamation and slander complaints to the Royal Household Bureau, as opposed to the current situation where anyone can do so. The law has repeatedly been used by successive governments as a tool to silence dissent.

Since 2020, Thailand has seen 252 people, including minors as young as 14, being charged with alleged violations of the lese-majesty law.

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