The political party that captured first place in Thailand’s general election two months ago only to see the country’s unelected Senators block its expectations of taking power announced Friday it's fighting back — and seeking to change the law to take away the Senate’s de facto veto over who can form a new government.
After the surprise May 14 victory of the progressive Move Forward Party, it assembled an eight-party coalition that together had captured 312 seats, a clear majority in the House of Representatives. On that basis, it has the right to try to form a new government, and on Thursday sought to have party leader, 42-year-old businessman-turned politician Pita Limjaroenrat, named prime minister.
Selection of a new prime minister requires winning a majority of votes in a joint sitting of the lower house and the 250-seat Senate, meaning a total of at least 376 votes. The process was enshrined in the 2017 Constitution, which was drafted and implemented by the military government that seized power in a 2014 coup. The members of the Senate, whose term expires next year, were appointed by the same government.
Critics said the system was designed to secure the grip of power of the conservative royalist establishment and weaken its political challengers, including pro-democracy activists. The vote to confirm Pita won only 324 votes on Wednesday, significantly short of the 376 needed for confirmation. Move Forward's opponents cited its proposal for minor reform to Thailand monarchy system as the reason for rejecting Pita.
Just 13 senators supported Pita’s bid, while 34 voted against him and 159 abstained. Dozens more were absent and did not vote. While some senators justified their abstaining as a way to “turn off the switch” of their power to vote for the next leader, abstaining has the same practical effect as voting no.
Following his defeat in Parliament, Pita posted his thanks on Facebook for those who voted for him, including “the 13 votes from the brave senators.”
“I accept that the goal was not achieved, but I’m not giving up,” he wrote. “It is the greatest honor of my life to be nominated by Parliament as Thailand’s 30th prime minister.”
On Friday, Move Forward submitted to Parliament a draft amendment to the Constitution to revoke the Senate’s right to participate in the vote selecting the prime minister. Proponents of the amendment pointed out that this would be in the spirit of the senators' claim that they wanted to “turn of the switch” of their participation.
The current sitting senators will finish their five-year term in May next year. They will keep their seats until the next set of members are in place, but will no longer be able to vote for prime minister.
The vote blocking Pita from power triggered an outcry both from Pita’s coalition, political activists and members of the public who went online to blast the members of the Senate for failing to heed their will as expressed in the May election. Several hundred held a protest Friday in central Bangkok.
House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha has scheduled a second vote for prime minister next Wednesday. It was unclear if Pita will be nominated again, especially because of doubts that Move Forward will be able to pry more votes from the opposition and senators who strongly disapprove of its reformist platform.
The conservatives’ complaints were highlighted in the debate ahead of Wednesday’s vote, and focused on Move Forward’s proposal to amend the country’s law that makes defaming the royal family punishable by three to 15 years in prison.
The proposal, which Move Forward has repeatedly explained, would not abolish the law but includes parts that would soften penalties and allow only the royal household to lodge complaints. A major criticism of the law is that anyone can bring a complaint to police, so that the law is often used as a political weapon.
Several lawmakers from parties not included in Move Forward’s coalition, as well as military-appointed senators, said they would not support Pita because the amendment could destabilize the country's peace and security. The monarchy is sacrosanct to members of Thailand’s royalist establishment. Even minor reforms that might improve and modernize the monarchy’s image are anathema to them.
The debate opened up opportunities for members of Move Forward and other parties in its coalition to discuss the proposed amendment extensively, including on how the law might have been abused, how it may have undermined the reputation of the royal family, and how it had been amended in the past.
Pita said the party’s goal is to protect the monarchy, and the way to do that is by ensuring that “no one is allowed to use the King as a political tool.”
It was an extraordinary scene for historically royalist Thailand. While the student-led protests that erupted across the country in the past few years have opened up public discussion about the status of the monarchy, it remained a taboo subject in Parliament.
When Move Forward was an opposition party in 2019, it sought to bring a debate on a similar proposal to Parliament, but its motion was rejected.