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Unable to elect a new prime minister, a crucial juncture for Thai democracy

A setback for the future of democracy in Thailand, which has been under unstable military-backed administration for over a decade, occurred on Thursday when the lone nominee to be the next prime minister failed to garner enough parliamentary votes to form a cabinet.

The vote, in which members of Thailand’s bicameral National Assembly declared their choice for prime minister, was seen as a watershed moment for the country because it was expected to reveal whether the ruling establishment would accept the choice of the people who had overwhelmingly voted for progressive, opposition parties in a May election.

A new political party, called Move Forward, capitalized on growing discontent with the kingdom’s leadership and swept to power in a stunning election.

Pita Limjaroenrat, head of the Move Forward party, fell short of the 376 votes needed to win a majority in both houses of parliament. The Speaker of the House has called for a new vote to be held at a later time.

The party had promised major changes to the military, the economy, the decentralization of power, and even the traditionally untouchable monarchy in the Southeast Asian country of more than 70 million people.

Pita, speaking to reporters outside parliament after the vote, said he accepted the outcome “but won’t give up.”

He was referring to his party’s daring campaign promise to modify Thailand’s severe lese majeste law despite the taboo surrounding any mention of the royal family in the country. “We will not change our policies, we have to keep our promise given to the people,” he stated.

The vote is shadowed by monarchy.

Lese majeste is punishable by up to 15 years in prison under Criminal Code section 112, which makes it illegal to insult the King, Queen, or heir apparent. At the moment, anyone can file a suit regardless of their connection to the alleged wrongdoing.

Because of the delicate nature of the topic of royal change, numerous senators and conservative parties decided not to support Pita.

The next prime minister of Thailand should not be him. Senator Seri Suwannapanon stated before the vote that “he is not qualified” for two reasons: first, the Move Forward Party has a policy of changing and eliminating Section 112, and second, the Election Commission has referred the case to the court to check into his eligibility.

There is a general consensus among senators that they will not support a candidate who is ineligible under Section 112.

Senator Kittisak Rattanawaraha announced his decision to abstain from voting for Pita outside of parliament on Thursday morning. He claimed that the party was responsible for attempts to interfere with Section 112, the military, and independent agencies.

However, Move Forward’s initiatives received overwhelming support from the country’s youth, who had been disenchanted with authoritarian politics for years and were tired of the slow economy and competitive job market.

Record numbers of Thais cast ballots in the May election, sending a strong message of disapproval to the military-backed establishment that has dominated the country since 2014, when then-army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup.

Twelve successful coups have occurred in Thailand since 1932, including two in the past 17 years.

The military-drafted constitution that helped Prayut win the 2019 election was a major factor in the military’s continued political influence.

Prayut announced his resignation as prime minister on Tuesday, adding that he would continue in office until a new administration was established.

His party only gained 36 seats in the lower house in the May election, thus he was not expected to gain enough support to win another term as prime minister.

Obstacles to the advancement of society

If Harvard grad Pita, 42, wins Thursday’s parliamentary election, his supporters say it will herald in a more progressive and democratic period in Thai politics.

Despite Pita’s overwhelming electoral victory, the next leader of Thailand is still up in the air.

The threshold for forming a government in Thailand is 376 seats in the lower house and 192 seats in the upper house, for a total of 750 seats.

It took a coalition of seven other opposition parties to overcome Move Forward’s small majority and form a government.

The 250 members of the Senate are not elected and were appointed by the military after a coup. They voted for a pro-military candidate in the past, thus their support is crucial to the coalition’s chances of winning.

Pita’s bid for prime minister hit a serious snag because of that.

The military, the monarchy, and other prominent elites in Thailand have a history of working together to thwart efforts to make significant changes to the country’s political system.

Pita recently told that the goals of the planned structural changes of Move Forward are to “demilitarize, demonopolize, and decentralize” Thailand.

Among these reforms include the abolition of conscription, a smaller military budget, increased military transparency and accountability, and a smaller number of generals.

On the day of the election, the Move Forward Party and its leader, Pita, suffered a huge defeat when the Constitutional Court of Thailand accepted two charges against them on Wednesday.

Pita will be removed from his political duties pending the outcome of the case review scheduled for next week. That result could spark widespread street protests, which would just inflame his young fan base further.

The Election Commission has forwarded one complaint to the court in which it is alleged that Pita violated election law by owning interests in a media company and asked that he be banned from running for office. In a statement, Move Forward said that the Election Commission was trying to push Pita’s case to court, despite the fact that Pita has denied any wrongdoing on his part.

Pita has been touring the country in recent weeks, gathering hundreds of supporters during a demonstration in Bangkok on Sunday despite the rain.

Despite his previous assurance that he would garner enough legislative votes, he urged senators on Sunday to respect the choice of the people and not go against it.

On Twitter, he argued that neither Pita nor the MFP should benefit from the election results, but rather that Thailand should join the ranks of other democracies throughout the world.

If Pita is not chosen this Thursday, the Speaker of the House has scheduled two further days of voting for July 19 and 20.

After that, coalitions may begin to break down, and political gridlock may threaten the progressive movement’s electoral victory, leading to unrest.

A prominent Thai protest leader on Wednesday called for rallies if senators failed to vote in conformity with the election results, and Move Forward urged citizens to express their support in parliament on Thursday.

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