Thai election commission announces investigation of Move Forward Party leader

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Kunnawut Boonreak
Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand
Thai election commission announces investigation of Move Forward Party leader Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, the frontrunner for prime minister, gestures to supporters at party headquarters in Bangkok after preliminary election results revealed the party leading in the vote count, May 14, 2023.
Surin Pinsuwan/BenarNews

Thailand’s Election Commission announced Monday it would investigate the post-electoral frontrunner for prime minister to determine if he is qualified for political office – a move that could block his path to power. 

The announcement came as the party raised questions about the integrity of minutes recorded during a shareholder meeting of a media company tied to a complaint that could derail Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s plans to form a new government.

His party won the most seats in Parliament’s lower house in last month’s general election, threatening to upend a pro-military government, which has ruled Thailand since a coup nine years ago.  

“There is sufficient information to suspect that the candidate is unfit or prohibited from seeking public office, according to electoral regulations, to further investigate Pita,” Commission Chairman Ittiporn Boonprakong said in a text message on Monday.

The issue of the operational status of the iTV media company could have a significant bearing on another investigation by the commision into Pita, who has been accused of owning 42,000 shares while applying for office – a potential violation of electoral laws. If found that he broke the rules, Pita could be disqualified as an MP, potentially damaging his party’s ability to form a coalition government.

The latest statement by Thailand’s electoral body follows Friday’s announcement by the commission that it had dismissed allegations against Pita related to ownership of media shares. Instead, it shifted focus toward examining whether Pita knowingly applied to be an MP candidate while being potentially ineligible to contend for a House seat.

Politician Ruangkrai Leekitwattana filed the complaint with the commission ahead of the May 14 general election, in which he challenged Pita’s qualification for office over ownership of the media shares. Ruangkrai, a party-list candidate from the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party, claimed that owners and shareholders of media businesses are prohibited from running in national elections.

Last week, Pita reported that he had preemptively transferred the 42,000 iTV shares he inherited from his father to relatives to avoid potential political concerns. He denied any wrongdoing and said he was confident in beating the complaint against him.

Meeting minutes questioned

During an episode that aired on Sunday night, Channel 3’s investigative program, Three Miti News, presented details from iTV’s parent company Intouch Holdings’ annual shareholder meeting. The broadcast appeared to show a discrepancy between the official minutes and comments by a top executive.

In the minutes, Kim Siritaweechai, director of Intouch Holdings and chairman of the meeting, was asked whether iTV was operating as a media firm, to which he answered yes. The company was running in accordance with its registered objectives and it had submitted its balance sheet and corporate tax return to the revenue department as normal, he said.

But in a video clip of the April 26 meeting leaked to Three Miti News, Kim could be heard saying that iTV had not been operating as a media company since 2007, when it filed a lawsuit against the prime minister’s office for canceling its broadcast permit.

On Monday, Move Forward Secretary-General Chaitawat Tulathon said the discrepancy between the minutes and the leaked video raised suspicion that people at iTV could be involved in efforts to block Pita’s bid to become prime minister.

“This doesn’t seem to be a casual mistake or standard procedure of report preparation,” he said in a statement to the media. “Instead, it may be an intentional modification to align with subsequent documents, creating questions about potential foul play to prevent MFP forming a coalition government.”

Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, a party member, questioned whether the meeting minutes were being investigated.

“The question that society needs to pose is whether this behavior constitutes the creation of false shareholder meeting reports to frame someone else for criminal charges,” he said on Facebook.

“How will the company’s board chairman, the reviewing and revising committee of the meeting report, and other board members be held accountable for this case,” Wiroj asked.

US: a ‘delicate time’ in Thailand

Earlier this month, the U.S. National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific said that Washington was watching the Thai election “carefully.”

“This is a delicate phase in terms of the formation of a government. I think our goal is to sustain a strong bilateral relationship,” Kurt Campbell said, according to the transcript of his appearance at Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank, adding that Thailand is the oldest treaty ally in the region and many American companies have invested there.

“I think it is undeniable that the politics of Thailand have been unstable and complicated. I think our goal would be to support an effective, stable democratic government in Thailand and then work consequentially with it,” he said on June 6. “But this is an undeniably delicate time.”

Thannapat Jarernpanit, a professor at Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, said protests were possible.

“Even though we see efforts trying to prevent the MFP from forming a government, the case with iTV seems to exhibit a great disregard for the public and media. Creating false evidence is a serious matter,” Thannapat told BenarNews on Monday.

“The problem is that this situation could prolong the process of forming a government and induce public dissatisfaction. If asked whether there is a chance that the people will protest again, it is definite,” she said. 

“Especially facing an unjust case like iTV, people’s anger accumulates and could turn into a large-scale protest similar to when the Future Forward Party was dissolved.”

Wilawan Watcharasakwej in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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