Could political hurdles force Thailand into another parliamentary election?

More than a fortnight after the May 14 general elections in Thailand, voters are still far from certain who will be their country's next prime minister. Or whether the poll body will allow the winners to take their parliamentary seats at all.

According to the Election Commission’s final count, the up-and-coming Move Forward Party won 151 seats during the mid-May elections. It’s closely followed by the well-established Pheu Thai party led by the Shinawatra family with 141 seats. Pheu Thai had earlier hoped to win a landslide.

Meanwhile, the populist conservatives, Bhumjaithai Party, secured 70 seats, followed by the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party with 40 seats. Caretaker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s United Thai Nation won a dismal 36 seats while the Democrat Party won 25 seats. Other smaller parties hold the remaining seats.

After the initial euphoria following the surprise electoral victory of the Move Forward Party, which vaulted its charismatic 42-year-old leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, into the international limelight, the more difficult task of forming a government has been set in motion. That political reality is now testing the Harvard-educated politician before he could even become the premier.

Thailand’s parliament, also known as the National Assembly, is divided into two chambers: the 500-seat House of Representatives and the 250-member Senate. According to the military junta-endorsed 2017 Constitution, to become prime minister, the candidate needs the support of 50 percent plus one of the 750 National Assembly members.

Because none of the parties won an outright majority, the political bloc that received the highest number of seats, in this case, the Move Forward Party, gets the first crack at nominating a prime minister and forming a new government.

Pita quickly declared his readiness to be prime minister. Accordingly, political horse-trading followed. Among the most contentious is the demand of the runner-up party, Pheu Thai, to be rewarded with the House Speaker portfolio, posing a major source of irritation and a potential stumbling block within the coalition.

While the House Speaker issue remains unresolved, Pita and the Move Forward Party eventually assembled an alliance with seven other parties, including Pheu Thai, commanding an estimated 313 seats in the 500-seat lower house.

"This is another historic moment that shows we can transform the government to democracy peacefully," Pita declared as he announced the agreement with the other parties.

But even with that political coalition, Pita fell short of the 376 votes required from both chambers of the National Assembly for him to become prime minister. That means he and the Move Forward Party have to court senators in the upper house.

Military clout

Pita has his work cut out for him. How can a liberal-leaning young politician who campaigned on instituting social reforms and curbing the influence of the monarchy and the military win the trust of non-elected older senators, who owed their positions from the military, which is loyal to the King? Can he convince at least 63 of those senators to join their House counterparts and back his candidacy?

Those questions will continue to linger as Pita navigates the perilous path to power in a country with a long history of well-built military influence and military takeovers.

While the senators take the oath to be loyal to the country's constitution, few doubt where their politics lean.

Almost all of Thailand's 250 senators are appointed by the Thai Royal Army with the consent of the king or elected by fellow senators. They serve for at least one term, which is equivalent to five years in office.

A minority of the senators automatically earn their membership by virtue of their positions, including the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the military as well as the chiefs of the army, navy, air force and police. A seat is also reserved for the secretary of the defence ministry.

Since the senators are mostly appointed by the military, many of them also have military and security forces backgrounds. The majority was even appointed by the same military leaders who staged the coup d'etat in 2014. Former ministers, civil servants and lawyers have also been appointed senators.

In a move aimed at winning the crucial votes of the senators, the Move Forward Party and its coalition partners dropped from its list of legislative priorities the plan to amend a lese-majeste law, which punishes perceived insults of the monarchy with up to 15 years in jail.

The lese-majeste law has drawn criticism by activists and young voters, who accused the current government of Prayut Chan-ocha of using it to stifle dissent during his almost decade in power starting with the May 2014 coup d'etat. The coup itself had received the endorsement of the Thai king.

Citing the lese-majeste issue, several senators had earlier declared that they will not support Pita's bid for prime minister. At least one senator, Wanlop Tangkhananurak, however said that he will uphold "democratic principles" and vote for the candidate of the party that won the most seats in the general election.

Even with the decision to drop the lese-majese reform from its coalition agenda, it remains unclear how many senators will eventually back Pita as prime minister.

Other priority legislations still included in the coalition list are the drafting of a new, more democratic constitution, the passing of a same-sex marriage law, transitioning from compulsory military service to voluntary enlistment “except when the country is at war” and reforms of the police, military.

Biggest threat

None of the political stumbling blocks, however, is as serious as the move seeking to disqualify Pita to run as prime minister due to his past links to a media company.

On May 31, Thai Caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, a Thai jurist who advised the military leadership after the 2014 coup d'etat, hinted at the possibility of Pita's disqualification. He said that the details of the complaint against the candidate for prime minister's shareholding in the media company iTV Plc would be a key factor determining his eligibility.

He said that if the complaint targets his eligibility to be a prime minister, then Pita can still serve as a member of parliament. But if it targets both his premiership bid and membership of parliament, then the court could rule on both.

To recall, three days before the May 14 elections, a self-proclaimed activist, Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, who was affiliated with the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party, filed a complaint before the Election Commission against Pita, citing possible violation of the military junta-endorsed constitution.

It is unclear when the Election Commission will decide on the disqualification case against Pita

According to the 2017 constitution, individuals who hold shares of any newspaper or mass media business are prohibited from running as members of the House of Representatives.

In his complaint, Ruangkrai alleged that Pita held 42,000 shares in ITV Plc.

Pita had earlier dismissed the complaint as "nonsense", explaining on Twitter that he was not concerned about the case because the shares belong to his family’s inheritance fund.

"My status is the manager of the fund and I have consulted as well as informed the National Anti-Corruption Commission a long time ago," he wrote on Twitter.

After Pita's Move Forward Party emerged as the biggest winner of the May 14 elections, Ruangkrai expanded his complaint to include all of Pita's endorsements of party candidates. Those endorsements, particularly of candidates who won, could be nullified if Pita is disqualified, forcing a possible rerun of the entire parliamentary elections.

On June 1, the Move Forward Party rejected the possibility of another general election.

Rangsiman Rome, a parliament member from the party, was quoted by the Bangkok Post newspaper as saying, "everything has been arranged" to deal with the complaint.

"Everything is well-prepared, and [there is] nothing to worry about," he said.

Chusak Sirinil, deputy leader of the Pheu Thai Party, also dismissed the idea of a new election, saying that it is "unlikely" that other winning candidates from the Move Forward Party would be affected by the complaint.

But in a sign of trouble ahead, Senator Seree Suwanpanon suggested that a new general election might be possible. But he suggested that a new election should only be held in constituencies where the Move Forward Party won.

An unfavourable decision by the Election Commission could put Pita and the Move Forward Party into unchartered territory and push the country into political disarray.