BANGKOK, THAILAND — Thai reformist leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid to become prime minister ended Wednesday, despite his party winning the most votes in the May elections after the military and pro-royalist establishment blocked his bid for power.
Pita’s Move Forward Party (MFP) has ridden high on the support of young and urban Thais frustrated by nearly a decade of army-backed rule, but its efforts to form a government have stumbled.
The 42-year-old was dramatically suspended from parliament while seated in the chamber for discussions on his candidacy, which came to an end when lawmakers voted to refuse to consider him for a second ballot.
“I would like to say goodbye until we meet again,” he said, raising his fist as he left the assembly floor to the cheers of party allies.
Pita’s suspension came when Thailand’s Constitutional Court said it would proceed with a case that could see the leader disqualified from parliament altogether for owning shares in a media company.
Lawmakers are forbidden from doing so 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.
After he left the parliament, lawmakers voted by a large margin to rule that he could not be considered for the post a second time.
“Pita can’t be nominated twice in this parliamentary session,” speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha said, over howls of protest from within the chamber, immediately before the day’s proceedings were called to an end.
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.
“Why even ask people to go to the polls?” one protester, who did not give his name, told AFP.
Around 1,000 people gathered for a peaceful evening rally at the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok to protest the day’s developments.
Pita’s first tilt at the premiership failed when he fell dozens of votes short of the required support in a joint parliamentary sitting.
Thailand’s senate is stacked with military appointees, with only 13 of 249 serving senators voting for Pita last week.
Other roadblocks have been thrown in front of his Pita’s candidacy.
The Constitutional 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 refused to compromise on 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.
Pita has vowed to step aside to make way for another party 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 parliament’s military bloc.
Thai voters roundly rejected army-backed parties in May’s election.
Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak told AFP the prospect of a military presence in the next government could spark a backlash in a country that is no stranger to civil unrest.