Thai Govt Calls for Calm after Reformist's PM Bid Fails

Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha speaks to the press after a cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok on May 16, 2023. Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP

Bangkok, Thailand -- Thailand's caretaker prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called for calm Thursday after a popular progressive candidate's bid to succeed him was thwarted by military and pro-royalist lawmakers.

Pita Limjaroenrat's party won the most seats in May elections, but on Wednesday he was dramatically suspended from parliament, which then refused to grant him a second vote to become the kingdom's next premier.

About 1,000 people gathered for a protest that night to express their anger over the Harvard-educated liberal leader's foiled bid for power, before dispersing peacefully.

Thailand is no stranger to political unrest, and Prayut -- who took power in a 2014 coup -- "understood" the frustration of Pita's supporters, his office said.

But he also implored the public to "move Thailand forward in a democratic way alongside the monarchy", spokesperson Rachada Dhnadirek said.

"The expressions of opinion and political activities need to be peaceful, without violence, and without destroying the economy, trade and investment."

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 Thailand's establishment vehemently opposes its agenda.

The party has refused to compromise on its pledge to revise the kingdom's strict royal defamation law, which can allow convicted critics of the monarchy to be jailed for up to 15 years.

Its reformist platform also poses a threat to family-owned business monopolies that play an outsized role in the kingdom's economy.

Pita was suspended from parliament by the Constitutional Court when it decided to proceed with a case that could see him disqualified as an MP altogether for owning shares in a media company.

Lawmakers are forbidden from doing so under Thailand's charter, though the television station in question has not broadcast since 2007.

- 'Until we meet again' -

Pita was defiant as he left parliament on Wednesday, raising his fist to supporters and bidding farewell "until we meet again".

But he has also vowed to step aside to make way for another party to form a government now that his second attempt at the premiership has failed, after falling short by dozens of votes last week.

The coalition backing him could fall in line behind property tycoon Srettha Thavisin, potentially relegating the MFP to serve in opposition.

"The votes yesterday were disappointing, but we have to go forward," Srettha told reporters after his Pheu Thai party met on Thursday.

Pheu Thai 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.

Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, a former army chief who served as Prayut's number two after 2014, has also been floated as a possible candidate for PM or a minister in a Pheu Thai-led government.

But any decision by the party to form a government with army-aligned lawmakers would likely spark a public backlash, political analyst Napisa Waitoolkiat told AFP.

"A lot of people, the progressive voters or pro-democracy voters, are going to really remember this moment," she added.

May's election was the first since huge rallies in 2020 brought much of Bangkok to a standstill, with thousands of largely young Thais demanding political reforms.

Patsaravalee Tanakitvibulpon, a protest leader from that period, told AFP that establishment maneouvring to exclude MFP from office could spark "even larger" demonstrations.

"People won't stand for it," she added.

© Agence France-Presse

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