Thailand’s orange wave hits resistance as leader fails in prime minister vote

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Jakarta: The leader of the progressive party that topped the popular vote in Thailand’s elections has had his bid to become prime minister thwarted by the country’s military-appointed Senate.

The move has plunged the south-east Asian nation into further political uncertainty.

Pita Limjaroenrat’s orange-coloured Move Forward Party stunned the powerful military and royalist establishment in Thailand when it claimed the most seats in the May 14 elections, having run on a reformist platform that included amending the country’s controversial lese-majeste law.

Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat reacts to the vote count in the joint sitting of parliament on Thursday.Credit: Reuters

It won 151 of 500 lower-house seats and formed an eight-party, pro-democracy coalition of 312 MPs, among them members of Pheu Thai, the party associated with self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra that placed second with 141 seats.

The election result heralded a seismic shift in Thai politics, nine years after the armed forces reclaimed power in the latest of a series of military takeovers in Bangkok.

But while the Move Forward-Pheu Thai coalition claimed a clear majority in Thailand’s House of Representatives, trouncing the country’s military-linked conservative parties, Limjaroenrat’s attempt to become the country’s 30th prime minister has been blocked in a bicameral sitting of parliament.

Under a new constitution forced in the wake of the 2014 coup, 250 senators appointed by the government of coup leader Prayut Chan-o-ch also had a say in Thursday’s parliamentary prime ministerial poll, meaning the 42-year-old Harvard graduate needed at least 375 of 699 total votes in the National Assembly after one senator resigned.

Move Forward supporters gather outside parliament on Thursday.Credit: Getty Images

That left him requiring the endorsement of 63 members of the junta-installed Senate but despite being the only nominee for prime minister, he could not secure the numbers. Amid dozens of abstentions and absences, Limjaroenrat wound up with short with 324 votes, unable to overcome fierce resistance to his reform agenda, which includes separating the military from politics.

During a six-hour joint sitting preceding the vote there was furious debate about Move Forward’s electoral pledge to press for changes to Thailand’s draconian royal defamation laws, under which insults of the monarchy can be punished with 15 years jail per count. One MP even suggested that the law be toughened to permit those disparaged the monarchy to be shot.

The push to stand in the way of Limjaroenrat becoming Thailand’s leader had gathered pace on the eve of the vote as its election commission referred an investigation into him having held a stake in a media entity, which is against electoral rules, to the Constitutional Court, recommending he be suspended from parliament.

Limjaroenrat has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining the company was long defunct and the shares had only been in his name as an inheritance from his father, who died in 2006.

Limjaroenrat’s party won all but won seat in Bangkok and were out on force again on Thursday.Credit: Getty Images

The Constitutional Court also agreed on Wednesday to take on a complaint against Move Forward over its plan to amend the lese-majeste law, the notorious Section 112 of the Thai criminal code.

The court’s dissolution in 2020 of opposition party Future Forward – a precursor to Move Forward – sparked mass, youth-led protests in which demonstrators called for royal reform – and Thursday’s stalemate opens the door for a possible resumption of civil unrest.

Backing for Limjaroenrat is overwhelming strong in Bangkok in particular, with Move Forward having won 32 of the 33 seats in the capital, and supporters gathered outside parliament on Thursday ahead of the poll.

Another vote for the prime ministership is expected to be held next week, which Limjaroenrat can contest if he is nominated again.

Prayut, who has led Thailand in the near decade since the coup and has been caretaker prime minister in the two months following the May election, announced on Tuesday he would retire from politics.

– with Reuters

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