Thailand Bars Election Winner From PM Race as Tension Builds

Thailand’s parliament barred Pita Limjaroenrat from running for prime minister, in a decision that undermines the people’s choice by keeping the leader of the party that won the May general election from heading the next government.

(Bloomberg) — Thailand’s parliament barred Pita Limjaroenrat from running for prime minister, in a decision that undermines the people’s choice by keeping the leader of the party that won the May general election from heading the next government. 

A majority 395 members in the 748-strong bicameral National Assembly — which comprises the newly elected lower house and the military-appointed Senate — voted to keep Pita from trying for the post again after a previous attempt was blocked, according to results announced by House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha after a marathon debate lasting almost eight hours Wednesday. The decision came shortly after a court suspended Pita as a lawmaker, pending a final verdict on his disqualification over alleged breach of election rules. 

The moves effectively leave Pita with near-zero chance of leading the country, although the eight-party pro-democracy coalition he cobbled together after the May 14 polls still has a shot at ending the nearly decade-long military rule. Pita has already said he’s willing to let coalition partner Pheu Thai lead government formation efforts should he fail in his attempts to secure power and separately remove the voting powers of the Senate — stacked with allies of the royalist establishment — in prime minister selections.

The baht gained to a two-month high during the day, which Natwest Markets emerging markets FX strategist Galvin Chia attributed to optimism that Pheu Thai will be stepping in if Pita fails. 

Pheu Thai, the second-biggest party in the coalition, is expected to take up the reins and lead efforts to form the next government, with former property tycoon Srettha Thavisin tipped to be the party’s main pick for premiership. Another option could be Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. 

But questions remain about how a Pheu Thai-led coalition will look like, especially in the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote which suggested a candidate gets just one shot at becoming prime minister. 

Sticking with Move Forward may complicate the parliamentary math for Pheu Thai, as the Constitutional Court is hearing another case seeking the disbandment of Pita’s party over its pledge to reform the so-called lese majeste law, or the royal insult law.

“It could mean that every nominee has only one chance,” said Napon Jatusripitak, visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “This is a very good and legitimate excuse for forming bigger, new alliances to garner enough votes for prime minister approval.”

Pheu Thai may be tempted to break away from its alliance with Move Forward or risk losing Senate support. It may explore alliances with conservative groups such as Bhumjaithai Party of cannabis champion Anutin Charnvirakul or Palang Pracharath Party of former army chief Prawit Wongsuwan. 

“It’s clear that in the current system, winning the trust of the people isn’t enough to govern the country,” Pita said in an Instagram post. He earlier had to leave the National Assembly hall in the middle of the debate after receiving the court’s suspension order.

Later, Pita urged his supporters to fight alongside him. Protesters gathered outside of the parliament gates Wednesday, with police officers in flak jackets lined up on the other side. 

The developments bear uncanny similarities to earlier ones against Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Move Forward’s predecessor party. Thanathorn was found guilty by the same court for holding media shares and disqualified as a lawmaker. His party, known as Future Forward, was later dissolved in another case, igniting a mass protest movement in 2020 that led to unprecedented calls for monarchy reforms.

Although investors wagered that the political deadlock in Thailand may come to an end soon, concerns over the delay in forming a government more than two months after the elections as well as endorsing the annual budget are pushing up borrowing costs for companies. 

The yield of 5-year BBB-rated local currency notes in Thailand has jumped more than 6 basis points in July, while that of similar notes in Indonesia and Malaysia fell 6 and 7 basis points, respectively, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. 

The strength of the National Assembly Wednesday stood reduced to 748 from the original 750, after one member resigned last week and Pita was suspended.

“Since the May 14 election, Thai society has changed. Thailand will never be the same again,” Pita wrote on Facebook. “So we must keep fighting together. We’ve won half way, let’s keep going.”

–With assistance from Pathom Sangwongwanich and Napat Kongsawad.

(Updates with details and analyst quotes from the fifth paragraph.)

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