Thai polling body says PM frontrunner may have broken rules, refers case to court

Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwej
Thai polling body says PM frontrunner may have broken rules, refers case to court Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat waves to his supporters during a rally in front of Central World in Bangkok on July 9, 2023.

Updated at 06:37 a.m. ET Time on 2023-07-12

Thailand’s Election Commission said Wednesday it had found evidence that leading prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat violated electoral rules and referred his case to the Constitutional Court to decide whether he should be disqualified as a lawmaker.

The announcement comes just a day before Parliament is set to vote for Thailand’s next prime minister. Pita, the leader of the Move Forward Party, has the backing of eight parties comprising 312 MPs, but needs significant support from pro-royal, conservative senators in the 750-seat bicameral legislature to take power.

The Election Commission launched an investigation in June into whether Pita knowingly applied to be an MP candidate while holding shares in defunct media company iTV, which is prohibited under electoral laws. In a statement Wednesday, it said the commission’s fact-finding team had concluded he was in breach of the rules.

“The Election commission of Thailand has resumed consideration of the case and agreed that the [parliamentary] status of Pita Limjaroenrat has been nullified … Therefore, the case will be forwarded to the Constitutional Court to consider,” the polling body said.

Pita said the commission’s rush to make its referral to the Constitutional Court was unfair because he had not been given a chance to respond.

“Regulations allow me to defend myself,” he told reporters. “This was done in quite a hurry. It should not have happened one day before the election of a prime minister.”

Pita, 42,  said he was not worried by the case and it had nothing to do with his qualification as a candidate for prime minister.

Experts say that the case against Pita will not delay voting for Thailand’s new leader on Thursday. In theory, the PM candidate does not have to be a lawmaker. But it makes it even less likely the Harvard-educated former executive at supperapp Grab will secure backing in the upper house Senate.

The Constitutional Court said in a statement on Wednesday it had accepted Pita’s case and it would be added to the agenda for consideration at a later date.

It also said it had accepted a separate complaint filed by a lawyer Teerayuth Suwanakesorn against Pita and Move Forward’s plan to reform Article 112 – the Lèse-Majesté law– of the criminal code.

The accused parties would be asked to clarify the matter within 15 days, the Constitutional Court said.

In February 2021, Move Forward proposed an amendment to the royal defamation law, but it did not progress in Parliament. 

Teerayuth, a staunch royalist, said in his petition the proposal could be deemed as an attempt to “overthrow the constitutional monarchy or the democratic regime with the king as the head of the state.”

‘Battle has begun’

Pita’s Move Forward Party won a surprise election victory in May on the back of its reform agenda, trouncing parties in the pro-royalist government that have ruled the country in some form or another since a military coup nine years ago.

The party’s liberal campaign promises, which include plans to rewrite the constitution, end business monopolies and modernize the justice system and security forces, have antagonized the country’s traditional ruling elite.

Its ambition to amend the Lèse-Majesté law, which it says has been abused by the current government to silence criticism, is its biggest hurdle to winning over conservative-leaning senators in the upper house.

There is no rule about how many times Pita – who needs 64 additional votes – can be nominated for prime minister, according to House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha.

Any party with at least 25 seats in the lower house can nominate a prime ministerial candidate, but it’s unclear if another contender will be put forward.

Pita has appealed to the members of the House of Representatives not to ignore the will of the people. 

“Voting for the prime minister on July 13 is not merely the election of Pita or the Move Forward Party, but confirmation that Thailand is moving along the democratic path, in line with democratic countries worldwide,” he wrote on his official Twitter account on Tuesday.

Whether the military-backed establishment will accept the opposition mandate has been hotly debated in Thailand since before the election on May 14.

Thailand’s military has staged 13 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and the country has been rocked by clashes between generals and pro-democracy reformists over the years.

Arnon Nampa, a lawyer and leader of the pro-democracy movement, called for rallies in the capital Bangkok on Wednesday evening.

“This insult to our pride is unacceptable,” Arnon wrote on Facebook. “We will fight against the destroyers of democracy. ... Regardless of the conclusion, the battle has just begun.”

This story has been updated to include comments from Move Forward Party Leader Pita Limjaroenrat, the Constitutional Court and Arnon Nampa. 

Kunnawut Boonreak in Chiang Mai contributed to this report.


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