Thai Lawmakers Block Prime Minister Candidate From New Vote, Drawing Protests

Protesters launched demonstrations on Wednesday, hours after Thailand’s conservative establishment suspended a progressive leader and lawmakers denied him the chance to stand for a second parliamentary vote for prime minister.

The candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, leads a party that won the most votes in a May election after campaigning on an ambitious reform platform that challenged the country’s powerful conservative establishment. He lost an initial parliamentary vote for prime minister last week.

Late Wednesday, lawmakers voted to deny Mr. Pita, 42, the chance to stand for a second vote on the grounds that Parliament’s rules do not permit a “repeat motion.” Mr. Pita’s supporters see that as a not-so-subtle move to keep him out of power.

The mood in Bangkok, Thailand’s muggy capital, was anxious as protesters hit the streets on Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Pita’s supporters have been expressing outrage online toward an establishment that often pushes back against Thailand’s democratic process.

“In my heart, I knew this would happen, so it didn’t come as a shock,” said Wichuda Rotphai, 41, one of hundreds of people who gathered outside Parliament on Wednesday to support Mr. Pita’s doomed bid for premier. “But I’m still disappointed, and I can’t accept it.”

Here’s what to know.

Mr. Pita’s party, Move Forward, has proposed ambitious policies for challenging Thailand’s powerful institutions like the military and the monarchy. The party won 151 seats in Parliament, the most of any party, and 10 more than Pheu Thai, the party founded by the exiled populist Thaksin Shinawatra, whose influence still towers over Thai politics.

Mr. Pita’s party has formed an eight-party coalition, which nominated him for prime minister last week. He came up short in the first vote because the Senate is controlled by military-appointed lawmakers who oppose his candidacy and the Move Forward platform.

Becoming prime minister requires a simple majority of the 500-seat House of Representatives and the 250-seat Senate.

But the rules governing Senate appointments were drafted by the military junta that seized power from a democratically elected government in a 2014 coup. They effectively give senators veto power over prime ministerial candidates.

Last week, Mr. Pita won only 13 votes from the 249 senators who voted for prime minister. Mr. Pita acknowledged in an Instagram post on Wednesday afternoon that he was unlikely to become prime minister.

“It’s clear now that in the current system, winning the people’s trust isn’t enough to run the country,” he wrote.

Mr. Pita had faced a slew of challenges even before Parliament denied him a chance to stand for a second vote.

The Constitutional Court said on Wednesday morning, for example, that it was suspending Mr. Pita from Parliament until a ruling is made in a case involving his shares of a media company. Investigators are trying to determine whether Mr. Pita properly disclosed owning the shares before running for office, as required by Thai law.

The court’s ruling forced Mr. Pita to leave the chamber. It would not necessarily have prevented his coalition from nominating for a second time. But Parliament saw to that on its own.

Mr. Pita’s supporters have said the investigation is one of many ways that the establishment has been trying to unfairly derail his candidacy.

Before the drama on Wednesday, Mr. Pita had said if it became clear that he could not win, his party would allow its coalition partner, Pheu Thai, to nominate its own candidate.

Pheu Thai probably will do just that, but is also likely to form a brand-new coalition, one that is more palatable to conservative lawmakers who cannot stomach Mr. Pita and Move Forward.

Pheu Thai’s candidate would likely be Srettha Thavisin, 60, a property mogul with little political experience. If a new coalition materializes, he could be voted in as prime minister as early as this week.

Mr. Srettha would immediately present a sharp contrast to the current prime minister, former Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 military coup.

A more remote, but not impossible, scenario is that Pheu Thai allows a party from the conservative establishment to nominate a candidate as a condition for joining a new coalition. That candidate could be Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, 77, the deputy prime minister in the current government.

Many would see it as a triumph for the democratic process in Thailand, a country with a long history of mass protests and military coups. Some foreign investors would also see a potential boost for a sluggish, coronavirus-battered economy.

But many of Move Forward’s progressive supporters would be angry about the establishment blocking their party from forming a government. On Wednesday evening, a demonstration reflecting that anger was taking shape at the city’s Democracy Monument.

The size of the protests over the next days or weeks will likely depend on who becomes prime minister. If it’s Mr. Srettha, demonstrations could be sporadic and modest. If it’s General Prawit or another military figure, they could be sustained and intense.

Ms. Wichuda, the protester, was one of hundreds who gathered outside Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, peering through its gates at police officers in riot gear. She said that while she did not agree with Mr. Pita’s contentious pledge to revise a law that criminalizes criticism of the monarchy, she still felt he had been “robbed” by politicians who were afraid to give a younger generation the chance to improve the country.

“If they can do such things to people with money and power,” she said, “what will be left for us, the common people, who have no position and no title?”

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