BANGKOK, THAILAND — The frontrunner to become Thailand’s next prime minister is facing an election probe that could see him disqualified, a senior official said Monday, in the latest setback to his bid for the premiership.
Pita Limjaroenrat’s progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats at last month’s election as voters delivered a crushing rejection of army-linked parties that ran the kingdom for nearly a decade.
But he has faced a number of challenges and complaints, and the election commission has now set up a special committee to investigate whether Pita was qualified to run for office.
“There is sufficient information and evidence to warrant further investigation into whether Mr Pita is qualified to run in the election,” commission chairman Ittiporn Boonpracong told AFP.
“The election commission has set up an investigatory committee to investigate further.”
It is not clear how long the investigation will take, but if found guilty, Pita could be disqualified and face up to 10 years in jail.
The probe relates to Pita’s ownership of shares in a now-defunct media company — prohibited under Thai election law.
Pita says he inherited the shares in the ITV television station, which has not broadcast since 2007, from his father.
The 42-year-old denies any wrongdoing and the party says it is not worried about the allegations.
“MFP is still confident that people power will win in the end, and the election commission will work honestly based on constitutional principles,” MFP secretary general Chaitawat Tulathon said.
MFP’s predecessor party Future Forward was also hit with the media shareholding rule in 2019 when billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was disqualified as an MP by a court order.
The probe is the latest hurdle thrown in Pita’s path as he seeks to become Thai prime minister.
MFP’s determination to amend Thailand’s tough laws against insulting King Maha Vajiralongkorn has spooked the royalist-military conservative establishment.
Pita has agreed on an eight-party coalition which would command a large majority in the lower house.
But to secure the prime minister’s job Pita has to muster a majority across both houses — including the Senate, whose 250 members were handpicked by the last junta.
A number of senators have already said they will not vote for him as prime minister, though Pita and his party say they are confident of securing the job.
MFP and fellow opposition outfit Pheu Thai dominated the 14 May election, in which voters roundly rejected Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, a former army chief who came to power in a 2014 coup.
The election commission has until 13 July to ratify the poll results, after which parliament will convene with a vote on the new prime minister expected in early August.
There are fears that if Pita is blocked from becoming prime minister — whether by the senate or some court or administrative ruling — it could plunge the kingdom into crisis, with protesters likely to flood the streets.
The coalition has announced ambitious plans to rewrite the constitution — scripted by Prayut’s junta in 2017 — as well as ending military conscription and allowing same-sex marriage.
The would-be government has also pledged to tackle the monopolies and oligopolies that dominate some sectors of the Thai economy, notably in brewing and other alcohol production.
But the coalition has not stated its position on lese-majeste reform, though it was a major campaign pledge from MFP.