BANGKOK, THAILAND — Thailand’s constitutional court suspended reformist Pita Limjaroenrat on Wednesday, in another blow to his hopes of becoming the nation’s next leader after a stunning election win.
Pita’s Move Forward Party (MFP) won the most seats in May polls thanks to young and urban Thais frustrated by nearly a decade of army-backed rule, but its efforts to form a government have stumbled since the May polls.
The court issued its suspension just as Pita was sitting in parliament for another day of deliberations on whether he could become prime minister after his first attempt fell dozens of votes short in a parliamentary sitting last week.
“I would like to say goodbye until we meet again,” the 42-year-old told the chamber, raising his fist as he left the assembly floor to the cheers of fellow lawmakers.
Thailand’s conservative establishment vehemently opposes the party’s economic reform platform and its pledge to soften the kingdom’s strict royal defamation laws.
On Wednesday morning the court said it would proceed with a case that could see Pita disqualified from parliament altogether for owning shares in a media company, forcing his suspension.
Lawmakers are forbidden from owning shares in media companies under Thailand’s constitution, though the television station in question has not broadcast since 2007.
Pita, Harvard-educated and wealthy from a family-run agrifood business, has said the shares were inherited from his father. He has 15 days to respond to the case.
Dozens of supporters cried and shouted abuse at a large riot police cordon guarding the gates of parliament after news of Pita’s suspension broke.
Protesters announced plans for a public rally near the Democracy Monument in downtown Bangkok for Wednesday evening and police said they were preparing for any unrest.
“No matter what their opinions are, they need to follow rules and orders set by the police,” said Archayon Kraithong, a spokesman for the Royal Thai Police.
Earlier Pita said that he was unlikely to have secured enough support to succeed in a second ballot for the premiership to be held Wednesday.
“It has become obvious that the people’s vote is not enough to rule the country,” he said in a post on his official Instagram account.
His candidacy “has to be approved by the senators, and it probably won’t be enough for the second PM nomination”, he added.
He remained in the chamber for several hours after the court order was issued and was not directed to leave.
Pita remains eligible to stand as a candidate for prime minister but will be unable to participate in any vote.
Thailand’s senate is stacked with military appointees, with only 13 of 249 serving senators voting for Pita last week, and those who refused to support him are unlikely to change their minds.
Other roadblocks have been thrown in front of Pita’s candidacy.
The court has also agreed to hear a case alleging that MFP’s campaign promise to amend Thailand’s royal defamation law is tantamount to a plan to “overthrow” the constitutional monarchy.
Pita’s party has ignored strident opposition to its pledge to revise the law, which can allow convicted critics of the monarchy to be jailed for up to 15 years.
The MFP’s reformist platform also poses a threat to family-owned business monopolies that play an outsized role in the kingdom’s economy.
The Constitutional Court has intervened in Thai politics before.
The billionaire leader of MFP’s predecessor party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was disqualified as an MP in 2019 after falling afoul of the same shareholding rule.
‘Justification for crackdown’
Pita has vowed to step aside to make way for a coalition partner to form a government if his second attempt fails.
The coalition backing him is expected to fall in line behind property tycoon Srettha Thavisin, potentially relegating MFP to serve in opposition.
Srettha’s Pheu Thai party is seen as a vehicle for the Shinawatra political clan, whose members include two former prime ministers ousted by military coups in 2006 and 2014.
But as a successful entrepreneur liked by fellow business leaders, the 60-year-old is seen as a potential compromise acceptable to the Thai elite.
Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, a former Thai army chief who served as number two in the junta that took power in 2014, has also been floated as a candidate by the parliament’s military bloc.
Thai voters roundly rejected army-backed parties in May’s election, and political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said the prospect of a military presence in the next government could spark a backlash in a country that is no stranger to political unrest.