On July 13, the Thai parliament will vote on a new prime minister. In the May 14 election, the pro-democracy Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, secured three times as many votes as the United Thai Nation Party. United Thai Nation is led by incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who has been in power for nearly a decade. However, because of an electoral system that favours conservative pro-military parties, Move Forward’s landmark win could turn into little more than a symbolic victory.
Legal challenges and questions of loyalty
Move Forward and populist runner-up, the Pheu Thai Party, secured more than 60 per cent of the lower house seats. They formed a coalition with six other parties, securing 312 seats. For Pita to be installed as the country’s next prime minister, he needs a total of 376 seats in the National Assembly. But he faces the Sisyphean task of winning over the conservative, pro-military old guard in the upper house.
Most of Thailand’s 250 senators, appointed by the military, oppose Pita’s move to amend the controversial lèse-majesté – a law that can result in up to a 15-year jail term for offences against the country’s monarchy. Move Forward has called the law a political tool to quash dissent against the military-backed government. The proposal to amend the law led the senate to question Pita’s loyalty to the revered monarchy.
Little more than a symbolic victory?
In addition, Pita is facing legal challenges for having failed to declare his ownership of shares in the now-defunct broadcaster iTV. If found guilty by the Election Commission, he could be fined and imprisoned. If the Commission chooses to take the case to the constitutional court, he could be barred from becoming the next prime minister.
Uncertainty about who will lead the country has already had ripple effects. The Thai stock exchange has tumbled by 11 per cent, becoming Asia’s worst performing index for 2023. There is already talk of the Move Forward-headed coalition possibly crumbling, with Pheu Thai taking a lead in building its own coalition instead.