Thai Election Body Recommends PM Frontrunner's Suspension

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. Photo by Sarah Lai / AFP

Bangkok, Thailand -- Thai election chiefs on Wednesday asked the country's top court to suspend Pita Limjaroenrat, the frontrunner in the race to become prime minister, over allegations he broke campaign rules as an MP.

The recommendation is the latest hurdle thrown into the path of the progressive candidate, whose Move Forward Party (MFP) scored the most votes in May's election by tapping into Thais' appetite for change.

The Election Commission's referral to the Constitutional Court was announced just a day before parliament was due to vote on a new premier.

While popular among voters, Pita's bid for the premiership faces stiff opposition over his plans to amend Thailand's royal defamation laws, which protect King Maha Vajiralongkorn and his family.

Following the commission's announcement, MFP secretary general Chaithawat Tulathon said the party still wanted the vote to go ahead.

"Tomorrow is a day of crossroads to see if we will continue to disregard the people's politics, or a chance to return to normal democracy and move Thailand forward," he said.

"I believe people will not accept it any more."

Pita told reporters at parliament after the announcement that he was in "good spirits", adding that "the process tomorrow continues as planned".

The kingdom has endured a dozen coups in the past century, with political instability a regular danger and progressive movements often abruptly curtailed.

May's election was the first since huge pro-democracy demonstrations swept the capital Bangkok in 2020, with tens of thousands making unprecedented calls for reform to the royal defamation laws.

The EC's investigation into Pita centred on his ownership of shares in a now-defunct media company. Legislators are not allowed to own media shares.

"The Election Commission has considered the issue... and perceives that the status of Pita Limcharoenrat is considered to be voided, according to the Thai Constitution," the EC said in a statement Wednesday.

Chairman Ittiporn Boonprakong confirmed to AFP the body had recommended the Constitutional Court suspend Pita as an MP.

It is unclear when the Constitutional Court may rule on the case, although it was due to meet Wednesday.

Even if the constitutional court suspends Pita as an MP, he is still eligible to stand for prime minister in the vote Thursday.

But if he were to face a criminal investigation, he could be barred from politics or face up to 10 years in prison.

Pita says he inherited the shares in the iTV television station, which has not broadcast since 2007, from his father.

The 42-year-old has consistently denied any wrongdoing.

- 'Such a hurry' -

Questions are already being raised about the decision, with analysts noting the unusual timing of the announcement.

Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, assistant law professor at Thammasat University, told AFP it was hard to see why the commission was in "such a hurry".

"I can think of only one reason, this action is to meant to affect the result of tomorrow's vote," he said.

He noted the "anomalies" of the decision, and said the EC should have heard all parties, especially the accused side, prior to announcing its decision.

Although backed by an eight-party coalition, Pita is still 64 votes short of the absolute majority required.

The decision could impact senators already looking for a reason to vote against Pita, Prinya said.

"There must be a reason that supports their action, and this is the reason," he said.

The Future Forward party -- a previous incarnation of the MFP -- was hit with a similar legal case in 2019, when the Constitutional Court disqualified billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as an MP.

That decision pushed tens of thousands of young demonstrators into the streets.

© Agence France-Presse

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