July 19, 2023
BANGKOK – Some media commentators raised interesting questions of whether Pita and Move Forward’s 300 campaign policies were merely “bait” to get them elected so they could carry out their real agenda – amendment of Article 112.
Most readers are probably familiar with the quote “To be or not to be” from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. The same dilemma now faces Pita Limjaroenrat and his fandom: does he struggle on against a sea of troubles in a bid to become prime minister, or give up the battle and allow another to take his place?
Two months ago, Pita and his Move Forward Party scored an unexpected election victory over Pheu Thai, Thaksin Shinawatra’s brainchild that transformed into an effective weapon against the military junta that ousted him from power two decades ago.
Pollsters had confidently declared that Pheu Thai would win the most constituency votes and become the main axis in the next government coalition. Somehow, things did not turn out that way. With almost 14.5 million votes secured, Pita and his party appeared confident of winning the parliamentary majority he requires to become prime minister.
His first attempt at the head of his eight-party coalition last Thursday failed after he was unable to gain the 376 votes needed from the 500-seat Lower House and 250-seat Senate.
Article 272 of the Constitution specifies that to be elected, a prime minister candidate must gain a simple majority in a combined vote by both Houses.
Pita fell more than 50 votes short after senators rejected him over his party’s controversial proposal to amend Article 112, or the lese majeste law, to reduce prison terms and allow only the Royal Household Bureau to file police complaints.
This policy sparked protest among rightists and royalists, who disagreed with the amendment to involve royalty in legal cases as a rival to others, particularly Thai citizens. Many MPs and most senators did not buy this idea, but they were still willing to vote for Pita on condition his party dropped the amendment proposal.
When Move Forward stuck to their guns, the result was predictable: only 13 Senators broke ranks to vote for Pita as PM.
The Senate’s inner circle was angered by those who insisted on voting for Pita, with sources revealing that several of the rebels were evicted from Line groups attached to their Senate committees. Several seem to be ostracised by other members, who were apparently unwilling to believe that they were simply performing their tasks under the rule of law and democratic principles. Many senators accused the “rebels” of voting to protect their own businesses and benefits, and out of fear for the well-being of their family members.
“To be or not to be” is seemingly a dilemma not confined to Pita and his party.
Pita responded to the failure in the first vote by announcing a parliamentary push to amend the Constitution to bar senators from involvement in selecting the prime minister. This will not be an easy job and could drag on for at least another 4-6 months, or even a year.
Some politicians said he should focus on his main task of winning a majority vote in Parliament rather than meddling in things not really concerned with his own future.
Meanwhile, some media commentators raised interesting questions of whether Pita and Move Forward’s 300 campaign policies were merely “bait” to get them elected so they could carry out their real agenda – amendment of Article 112.
Another heated issue following the general election is the campaign to do away with mandatory school uniforms. The spotlight here has fallen on “Yok”, a 15-year-old member of the Talu Wang (“Shattering the Palace”) protest group. The young activist has demanded she be allowed to attend Bangkok’s prestigious Triam Udom Suksa Pattanakarn School in casual clothes. Many politicians from the so-called “democratic faction”, as well as alumni and parental associations, are trying hard to turn up the heat. Observers are now forecasting that Pita and Move Forward’s downfall will be driven not just by the Article 112 campaign but also by the stubbornness and aggression of this young student and her protesting peers.
Pita carries his own destiny: to be or not to be. And time is running out. He and his party are currently facing a long list of accusations that could lead to him being barred from the political career he and his supporters might wish for. Several legal cases could end in him being disqualified and his party being dissolved. A guilty verdict could result in Pita, as well as all executive members of his party, being barred from politics for 10 years or even a lifetime, depending on the severity of their misconduct.
Meanwhile, chances have increased for election runner-up Pheu Thai to quickly restore trust and form another coalition government. It remains unclear whether Thaksin prefers Srettha Thavisin or his younger daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra as Pheu Thai’s prime ministerial candidate.
One thing is for sure, though: both Srettha and Paetongtarn are Chulalongkorn University alumni. This would make him or her the first prime minister from Thailand’s oldest university, after almost a century of democratic rule in Thailand.
Amorn Wanichwiwatana, DPhil (Oxon), is a former member of the Constitution Drafting Commission and a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University.