His progressive party may have won more votes than any other in Thailand’s election in May, sparking hopes of change for the country’s political system, but Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid to become the next Prime Minister was just rejected by an unelected senate in the Thai parliament’s first round of voting for its next leader.
It’s a sharp blow to the pro-democracy movement in a country that has spent the last nine years ruled by a military-backed government. Pita’s Move Forward Party had promised to steer Thailand sharply onto a more progressive path, with policies such as legalizing same-sex marriage and reforming stringent royal defamation laws—winning widespread public support amid simmering frustrations at the country’s conservative establishment. But by Thursday night local time in Bangkok, after five hours of debate and a two-hour roll-call vote, Pita fell well short of the 375 votes he would need to be confirmed as Prime Minister.
He came into the session with the backing of a 312-member coalition of the National Assembly’s newly-elected 500-member lower house but received the support of only 13 of 249 junta-appointed senators. But with 705 votes cast before the session adjourned, Pita mustered a total of just 324 votes in favor of his candidacy with 182 votes cast against him and 199 abstentions, which effectively count as votes against.
“The result was entirely predictable,” Mark S. Cogan, an associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Japan’s Kansai Gaidai University, tells TIME.
“For those expecting a democratic result to come from a rigged, faux-democratic system, their expectations are pure fantasy,” says Cogan. “Until electoral and judicial barriers are removed that prevent a seamless transition of power, outcomes like these will continue.”
But the saga isn’t over. The country’s future remains highly uncertain, experts say, as many options still remain on the table for what could come next—and, though he faces an uphill battle, Pita could still clinch the top job in another round of voting, set to take place on July 19.
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A rare debate on royals
While much attention in the run-up to the vote on Thursday was devoted to whether or not Pita would be disqualified for an alleged breach of election law by holding shares in a media company—an issue that remains to be resolved—during the National Assembly’s pre-vote debate on Pita’s candidacy, his party’s opposition to the country’s royal defamation, or lese-majeste, laws took center stage instead, marking a rare moment that the monarchy was explicitly discussed in parliament.
“If you let people insult the monarchy without any laws to keep them in check, our country will burn,” said an impassioned Chada Thaiseth, an MP from the conservative Bhumjaithai Party. “How about I propose a law allowing people to shoot those insulting the monarchy?”
But Pita claimed that the status quo, rather than his candidacy, represented the more radical option.
“If lese-majeste wasn’t [being] abused, then we wouldn’t be at this political conflict at this point,” Pita said in his closing argument before the lawmakers began to cast their votes. “I’m presenting myself as the opportunity to return normalcy to politics.”
Move Forward won strong popular support in particular for its calls to amend Section 112, the country’s controversial lese-majeste law—which carries up to 15 years in prison for criticizing the royal family, and which in recent years has been used to target pro-democracy activists.
But the party’s stance on Section 112 also became the target of a petition accepted by the Constitutional Court on Wednesday. The petition called for the dissolution of Move Forward, arguing that the party’s plan to amend Section 112 violated the constitution, which forbids the public from overthrowing the monarchy. The court has given Move Forward 15 days to present its defense.
A blow for democracy
Thailand’s general election in May, which saw prominent opposition parties Move Forward and Pheu Thai sweeping the majority of the contested seats, was widely perceived as a public mandate against the junta, which has been met with fervent protests from pro-democracy activists over the years.
But the odds were always going to be stacked against Pita on his road to taking the premiership from the junta, even after his success in the election.
“This outcome underscores the longstanding notion that democracy in Thailand is allowed to thrive only when it aligns with, or does not threaten, the established political order,” Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, tells TIME.
Despite forming an eight-party coalition that included Pheu Thai, the election’s second most popular party, Move Forward was unable to gather enough support to form a government, leaving Pita reliant on votes from senators and MPs outside his coalition alliance to become Prime Minister. The junta-appointed Senate has been used by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha since 2017 to ensure the military’s control of parliament with him at the helm. (After announcing his retirement from politics on Tuesday, Prayut remains caretaker Prime Minister until his successor is selected.)
Pita was also hit in recent weeks by controversy over shares that he allegedly owned in a media company when he applied to run for office—a potential violation of Thailand’s electoral laws. On Wednesday, the pro-military Election Commission tried to get Pita disqualified on the eve of the Prime Minister vote by referring his case to the Constitutional Court, recommending that Pita be suspended as a member of parliament—a maneuver that Move Forward labeled an “abuse of power.”
Pita, for his part, has denied breaking election rules.
What comes next?
Thursday’s session will be followed by another round of votes next week, along with the possibility of new contenders and shifts in coalition alliances.
Speaking to reporters after the parliamentary session, Pita said that while the second round of voting is expected to be tough, he will continue to try gathering support from more senators and MPs. And as for the party’s stance on the lese-majeste law, which polarized the debate in parliament Thursday, “the mission remains the same,” Thai PBS reported.
“What happened today is not entirely the end of everything,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University, tells TIME, pointing to the pending court rulings on Pita and Move Forward, as well as the opportunity for Move Forward to gather more senator support for the next prime ministerial vote. “I don’t think there will actually be an extreme situation, unless the court decides to conclude Pita’s case,” he says.
Should Pita ultimately fail to become Prime Minister, which appears likelier after Thursday’s initial vote, experts fear that could fuel mass protests across the country.
In anticipation of public demonstrations on Thursday, authorities set up shipping containers around the parliament building—similar to the tactic used last year to block protests against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s tenure. That did not stop large crowds of Move Forward supporters from thronging the area on Thursday, clad in the party’s signature shade of orange, to watch a broadcast of the votes on Pita together, though they left in disappointment.
“In the long term, the frustration and discontent among the public, particularly those who feel that their democratic aspirations have been undermined, could lead to widespread mobilization and demands for political reforms,” says Napon. “The lack of a clear pathway for their grievances to translate into change through parliamentary channels could further erode public trust in the existing political institutions and contribute to a sense of disillusionment with the democratic process.”
Correction, July 13
The original version of this story misstated how many senators abstained in the vote on Thursday. It was 199, not 198.
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