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Monday, December 11, 2023

Thailand’s Election Win, Top Job a Long Shot

Thailand faced the imminent threat of political deadlock as politicians convened in Parliament to elect the next prime minister without a clear frontrunner. Pita Limjaroenrat, the prominent progressive leader who achieved a significant victory against the ruling military junta and its royalist allies in the general election held in May, encountered two major setbacks on the eve of the vote.

The Election Commission requested the Constitutional Court suspend Mr. Pita from Parliament, a decision that severely affected his candidacy. He had been under investigation for allegedly owning undeclared shares in a media company, and the Court also accepted a complaint against him for advocating the amendment of a law that harshly penalizes criticism of the Thai monarchy.

Despite these setbacks, Move Forward, Mr. Pita’s party and other coalition members proceeded to nominate him for the position of prime minister on Thursday morning. However, these obstacles would make it significantly more challenging for him to secure the necessary support to assume the role, potentially leading to renewed pro-democracy street protests in a nation that appears disillusioned with military rule.

Thailand has a history of military coups, and Mr. Pita’s supporters largely perceive him as a victim of a military-dominated political system that is allegedly attempting to thwart the will of Thai voters once again. The Election Commission’s recommendation for suspension would likely be used as an argument by senators opposing Mr. Pita’s candidacy, thereby diminishing his chances of securing the required majority.

To become prime minister, Mr. Pita or one of his allies would need to garner sufficient support in the 500-member House of Representatives, overcoming opposition from the 250-member, military-backed Senate. Failure to secure at least 376 votes, a simple majority in both chambers, would result in a deadlock. Mr. Pita was not expected to reach this threshold during the vote on Thursday, indicating the likelihood of subsequent rounds of voting on July 19 and, if necessary, the following day.

Should Mr. Pita face defeat, his progressive coalition might not withstand the blow. Members of Pheu Thai, the second-largest party in the coalition, were anticipated to vote for Mr. Pita but could potentially form a new coalition under the leadership of one of their own prime ministerial candidates after Thursday’s vote. Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon seen as a more acceptable candidate for Thailand’s military establishment, could be fielded by Pheu Thai if Mr. Pita, aged 42, fails to secure the position.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the general who assumed power after leading Thailand’s previous military coup in 2014, announced his intention to retire from politics once a new government is formed. However, the military and its allies may seek alternative means to retain power.

The political landscape in Thailand remains highly complex and unpredictable, making it challenging to determine the eventual winner, according to Mr. Wanwichit, a political scientist at Rangsit University.

Thailand holds significant economic and strategic importance in Southeast Asia, a region where several countries have experienced a regression towards autocracy following brief experiments with democracy. While the country was previously viewed as a stable ally of the United States, it has increasingly gravitated towards China under the current junta.

Mr. Pita expressed his discontent that the Election Commission’s actions against him were unjust and untimely, considering the proximity to the parliamentary vote. Supporters from his coalition were expected to gather outside the Parliament building in Bangkok ahead of the official vote for prime minister on Thursday evening.

The outcome of the vote, accompanied by likely protests, could amplify the existing anger against the junta in Thailand and potentially trigger extended civic unrest reminiscent of previous episodes following military coups in the country.

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