• World
  • Thailand

Legal Challenges Mount in Thai Election Winner’s Path to Becoming Prime Minister

4 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Thailand’s prime ministerial candidate Pita Limjaroenrat and his Move Forward party, which won the most seats in the May general election, found themselves running into multiple legal challenges to their aspiration of leading the next government.

The Election Commission Wednesday approached the Constitutional Court seeking Pita’s disqualification as a lawmaker, on the grounds that he breached election rules by holding shares in a media company when he applied to run for public office. Hours later, the same court admitted a case filed by a lawyer seeking dissolution of Move Forward over its vow to amend the country’s royal defamation law.

Read More: The Voting in Thailand’s Election Is Finished, But the Politicking Is Just Beginning

The developments raised questions about the fate of Pita, ahead of a parliament vote Thursday to elect a new prime minister. Pita’s Move Forward party called the poll panel’s move unfair, with a business lobby group separately warning that any delay in government formation as a result of these actions could dent investor confidence in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

The baht erased earlier gains to fall as much as 0.3% to 34.92 per dollar, while most major Asian currencies were up versus the dollar. The currency is the second-biggest decliner in Southeast Asia since the May 14 vote, while the nation’s benchmark stock index is the worst performer in Asia this year.

After a weekly meeting on Wednesday, the Constitutional Court judges noted that they had received the election body’s request but did not immediately accept or dismiss it.

“The Election Commission found that Pita Limjaroenrat’s membership in the House of Representatives has grounds to be terminated according to the Thai constitution,” the agency said.

In the event the court does act later, suspension of Pita’s status as member of parliament is an option pending a final verdict on his disqualification. That may scupper the Move Forward Party leader’s chances of contesting the prime ministerial election in parliament, which may well drag into next week.

Read More: Who Will Be Thailand’s Next Prime Minister? Here Are All the Ways It Could Go

Pita is the lone candidate for the top job after his party won the most seats in the May 14 general election. He had cobbled an alliance of eight parties that together control more than 60% of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. Pita still needs the support of at least 65 other lawmakers, either from the conservative outfits or from the 250-member Senate to become prime minister.

Even as Pita’s candidacy itself was in doubt, Move Forward’s secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon said the parliament’s schedule to hold an election for premier on Thursday won’t likely be affected by the poll body’s decision.

Move Forward issued an “urgent call for action” to its supporters, asking them to wear orange clothing Thursday as a show of support for Pita.

“Tomorrow will bring a crossroad for Thailand that will determine whether we’ll turn back to the kind of politics that doesn’t care about the people or we’ll take the chance to take Thailand forward,” Chaithawat told reporters. “I believe Thai people won’t stand for it this time.”

Some others didn’t share that optimism. The legal challenge hanging over Pita makes it increasingly likely that Thursday’s vote may be postponed, said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor at Mahidol University.

“The case will have a huge impact,” Punchada said. “The timing of this gives away what it’s meant to achieve. It can also be used an excuse by senators to make a case to delay voting until there is clarity.”

The Election Commission started a probe last month following claims by a political activist that Pita had violated election rules by holding 42,000 shares in now-defunct broadcaster ITV Pcl.

Thailand’s constitution bars lawmakers from owning shares in media firms. Pita has said he didn’t own the shares but managed them as part of an estate left behind by his father. It has since been transferred to a family member, he said.

“The latest newsflow suggests that Pita is highly unlikely to win the PM vote in parliament tomorrow, and casts a heavy cloud over his candidacy,” said Alvin T. Tan, head of emerging-market currency strategy at RBC Capital Markets in Singapore. “As such, the market is anticipating an extension of Thailand’s post-election political uncertainty.”

—With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana, Napat Kongsawad, Cecilia Yap and Karl Lester M. Yap.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com