Thailand's Parliament voted on Wednesday against allowing the leader of the progressive party that finished first in May's general election a second chance to be confirmed as prime minister.
Pita Limjaroenrat had assembled a coalition of parties holding a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives.
But his nomination for prime minister was defeated in a joint vote of the House and Senate last week, with conservative military-appointed senators mostly refusing their support over ideological differences.
The joint session debated on Wednesday whether Pita could be nominated for a second time, and House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha then put the question to a joint vote. A motion to prevent him from running again was passed by a vote of 395 to 312, with eight abstentions. The meeting of Parliament was then adjourned.
Earlier, Thailand's Constitutional Court had agreed to suspend Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, a top candidate to become prime minister, from his duties as a member of Parliament pending its ruling on whether he violated election law.
The court's announcement came ahead of a likely second vote in Parliament on whether to confirm Pita as prime minister. His party was the top finisher in May's general election and assembled an eight-party coalition that won 312 seats in the House of Representatives.
However, the coalition failed to win enough support in an initial vote last week from the non-elected, military-appointed Senate, which votes together with the lower house to select the country's head of government.
The court's announcement would still allow Pita's nomination and selection as prime minister, at least until a ruling. But it also puts pressure on him to make way for another candidate, perhaps even before a second vote scheduled for Wednesday can be held.
Thailand's state Election Commission had referred Pita's case to the court, saying there was evidence he had violated election law over his undeclared alleged ownership of media company shares, which candidates for the legislature are not allowed to have. His supporters have challenged the commission's conclusion on what is widely seen as a minor technical transgression at worst.
Pita had been expected to have a last chance Wednesday to get the country's Parliament to confirm him as the next prime minister after being rebuffed last week when he failed to get enough support from the Senate, whose members made clear they would not vote for him because of his party's platform.
The party campaigned with a promise to try to amend a law that makes it illegal to defame, insult or threaten Thailand's royal family. Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, is abused as a political weapon.
The Senate's members, along with the army and the courts, are considered to be the conservative royalist establishment's bulwark against change.
Move Forward, whose agenda appealed greatly to younger voters, also seeks reforms that would reduce the influence of the military, which has staged more than a dozen coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and big business monopolies.
Ahead of Wednesday's session, Pita posted a message on Twitter asking senators to apply the same principles they did in 2019, when they voted for the candidate of a military-backed coalition that held a majority of House seats.
He also accused some senators of using the controversial claim that he is undermining the monarchy as an excuse to reject his candidacy, when their actual reason is that they feel their own interests are threatened by his party's broader reform agenda.
By midday Wednesday, Pita was not even guaranteed to get another chance at securing a needed majority in a combined vote of the lower house and the Senate. There first needs to be a parliamentary ruling on whether he can legally receive a second nomination for the prime minister's post, which is not clear.
House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha was set to decide the matter after a debate. He was elected to the House from one of the smaller parties in the coalition backing Pita's bid but has said he must consider the arguments for and against re-nominating Pita.
If Pita is disqualified, it is unclear whether Wednesday's vote for prime minister will proceed. If a vote is held but fails to confirm Pita, it also is unclear whether a planned third round of voting would take place Thursday.
Pita said Monday said he would stand for prime minister again this week but declared he would allow a candidate from another party in his coalition to try for the post if he failed to attract substantially more votes than last week. There is little to suggest that he would gain many, if any, more senators this time around.
The media's focus has already shifted to the putative replacement for Pita as nominee for prime minister.
He or she would come from the Pheu Thai party, which won 141 seats in the election, just 10 less than Move Forward's 151. The eight-party coalition seeking to take power won 312 House seats in all, a majority of elected lawmakers.
However, confirming a new prime minister requires a vote of a joint sitting of the lower house and the Senate. The coalition mustered only 324 votes last week, well short of the minimum 376 it needed.
Pita was Move Forward's only candidate, while Pheu Thai registered three names: real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin; Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup; and Chaikasem Nitsiri, the party's chief strategist.
Srettha has emerged as the favorite. He entered active politics only last year, and on Tuesday won a public endorsement from Paetongtarn.
She mentioned his business acumen and experience, which are seen as Srettha's strongest selling points to steady an economy which has had trouble bouncing back from the coronavirus pandemic.
If neither Pita nor a Pheu Thai candidate can win parliamentary approval, there will be pressure to assemble a new coalition, adding less liberal partners while dropping Move Forward because its position on royal reforms is seen as the stumbling block to a compromise.
For its part, Move Forward has declared it has no interest in serving in a government with parties tainted by links to the nine years of military-backed rule now ending, so it may be more comfortable in opposition.
“I think they would be willing to step out of the picture themselves and still feel like they are honoring what they announced to voters in the pre-election campaigning,” said Saowanee T. Alexander, a professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in northeastern Thailand.
She said she was hopeful but pessimistic since the issue of reforms to the monarchy “makes politics going forward very hard.”
“I still don't see how we can get these roadblocks out of the way,” Saowanee said.
The prospect of Pita being denied the prime minister's job has already riled his supporters and pro-democracy activists, who have called for demonstrations on Wednesday.