(New York) – The Thai Constitutional Court’s decision to suspend from parliament the leading candidate for prime minister on politically motivated charges is a serious blow to democracy in Thailand, Human Rights Watch said today. The reformist Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, had secured 151 parliamentary seats, the most votes of any party in the May 14, 2023 election, giving it the right to lead efforts to form a new government.
The Constitutional Court on July 19 accepted the Election Commission of Thailand’s allegations that Pita violated electoral rules and was unqualified to run for election because he held shares in the iTV media company, even though the company has not broadcast for 15 years and was removed from listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in 2014.
“Thailand’s military-backed conservative elites are manipulating the constitutional and legal frameworks put in place after the 2014 coup to block a popularly elected political leader from forming the government,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Both the junta-appointed election commission and the politically dominated constitutional court are taking Thailand down a path that could seriously damage democratic rule.”
The suspension order happened alongside other attacks against Pita and the Move Forward Party. Military junta-appointed senators – together with the United Thai Nation Party, which leads the caretaker government of former coup leader Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, and its allies – blocked the parliamentary nomination of Pita as a prime minister, alleging his party’s proposal to amend Thailand’s draconian lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) law amounts to an attempt to overthrow the monarchy.
On July 14, the parliament defeated Pita’s nomination. He needed 375 votes – a simple majority of all members of parliament and senators – to win the office, but received 324. Pita received 311 votes in favor from members of parliament and 148 against, with 39 abstentions. There were an additional 13 votes in favor from senators, with 34 against and 159 abstentions.
On July 19, the parliament voted in a joint sitting to reject the nomination of Pita for prime minister to be considered for a second time. Of the 715 MPs and senators present, 394 said a prime minister candidate cannot be renominated after failing in a first attempt. A total of 312 voted to support Pita’s bid, while 8 abstained.
The Constitutional Court has also decided to hear a case against the Move Forward Party regarding whether their policy position to reform the lese majeste law, article 112 of the criminal code, constitutes treason. Should the court rule against the party, the case will be put forward as a criminal prosecution. The party leaders face potentially harsh penalties, including imposition of the death sentence or life imprisonment. The Move Forward Party could also be dissolved, and party executives banned from politics for life.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand has ratified, provides that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections … guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”
So far, the United States, the European Union and its member states, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and other governments have largely failed to publicly raise concerns about this serious threat to democratic rule in Thailand.
“If the Move Forward Party is dissolved and its leaders barred from politics, then unelected senators and their allies will have denied the votes of millions of Thais, undermining the democratic rights of all,” Pearson said. “Thailand’s friends abroad should denounce this jarring setback to the long-anticipated return to democratic rule.”