Move Forward's fortunes still up in the air
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Move Forward's fortunes still up in the air

Analysts offer different views on Pita's prospect of snagging PM's job

Pita Limjaroenrat
Pita Limjaroenrat

The Election Commission's (EC) endorsement of all 500 MPs-elect has paved the way for parliament to convene and choose a new prime minister.

The Move Forward Party (MFP) won the largest number of house seats in the May 14 general election and formed an alliance with seven parties that agreed to support of its leader Pita Limjaroenrat in the prime minister's vote.

While the MFP-led bloc has mustered a total of 312 seats within the alliance, which can ensure a majority government, securing Mr Pita's premiership is a daunting challenge for the MFP. And as things stand, the Pheu Thai Party, its ally and the first runner-up, is widely seen as being in a better position to get the prime ministership.

The Bangkok Post talked to political analysts about the opening of parliament and obstacles the MFP and Mr Pita have to overcome in their pursuit of the top job.

Hanging by a thread

Under the constitution, the House of Representatives will convene to vote for the House speaker and two deputies within 15 days after the endorsement of the new MPs. This is expected to take place on July 6.

After the selection of the House speaker and the deputies, 500 MPs and 250 senators will elect a new prime minister in a joint sitting which may fall on July 13. The appointment of the new cabinet and the swearing-in ceremony for new ministers should be completed within August.

This is a general timeframe stipulated by law, but there is much more standing between the MFP, its prime minister candidate and the prime minister post they are seeking, according to Jade Donavanik, a legal scholar and former adviser to a constitution drafting committee.

The MFP's first challenge is to secure the House speaker post and the party has yet to settle the issue with the Pheu Thai Party which is also eyeing the position, he said. If the dispute is not resolved amicably, it can put Mr Pita in a bind when the prime minister vote is held.

Mr Pita himself stands accused of breaching the media share-holding rule and the qualification issue has the potential to derail his bid especially if it is brought before the Constitutional Court for a ruling, said Mr Jade.

The MFP leader held 42,000 shares in iTV, which some argue is a functional media company, when he registered his candidacy in the general election.

In an event Mr Pita is suspended from duty by a court order, he can still be nominated as prime minister. However, the lawmakers have a number of questions to ponder if this happens, he said.

"What if they vote for him and he is stripped of his MP status after being elected? Or what if they vote for someone else and Mr Pita is cleared by the court? I think these concerns should be addressed," he said.

On top of this is the MFP-led bloc's struggle to get 376 votes needed from both chambers to support Mr Pita's bid for premiership. The alliance needs backing from at least 63 others from outside the coalition, which Mr Jade believes is an uphill task.

According to Mr Jade, Mr Pita is unlikely to get enough support in the prime minister's vote and it is possible parliament will hold several such votes.

If the candidate cannot win the required support in the first round, MPs and senators will vote again and again until the prime minister is selected.

"It may reach the point that Pheu Thai gives up. To break the impasse, Pheu Thai may nominate one of its prime minister candidates for parliament to choose," he said.

The MFP has nominated Mr Pita as the sole candidate for premiership, meaning it cannot put forth another candidate if Mr Pita's bid fails.

The fight for the House speakership between the MFP and Pheu Thai is also interesting to watch, Mr Jade said, adding Pheu Thai remains ambiguous over the matter while the MFP still insists in occupying the post itself.

'Nothing will go wrong'

Despite legal troubles and uncertainties, Mr Pita is on his way to become the country's next prime minister, according to Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, programme director for politics and development strategy at the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida).

On the contest for the House speaker post, he said while the Pheu Thai Party is split over the post, eventually the party is likely to respect the voters who voted overwhelmingly in favour of change and concede the post to the MFP and retain two deputies.

If the MFP gets the House speaker post, the party's chance of getting the prime minister post is strengthened and what's standing in the way is the senate, he said.

The 250-member senate is said to be divided almost equally into three groups -- the conservative camp opposed to the MFP, a non-committal group and the progressive bloc determined to respect the election result.

If Mr Pita fails to be elected in the first round, the MFP-bloc may try to lobby MPs in other parties while the public will pressure the senate and there is a good chance the bloc will get the support it needs, he said.

However, Mr Phichai admitted the Pheu Thai Party still may step in to nominate one of its three candidates if Mr Pita's bid is unsuccessful after a few rounds of voting.

"The prime minister selection process will take no more than two months with multiple voting rounds. But I think there will be four votes at most," he said.

The MFP leader has nothing to worry about regarding the media share ownership issue, he said, pointing to the Constitutional Court's ruling that followed the disqualification of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, ex-leader of the now-dissolved Future Forward Party, over his shares in a media firm.

Mr Thanathorn ended up being disqualified as an MP in late 2019 as the Constitutional Court ruled he was not qualified to run in the last election because he held shares in V-Luck Media Co.

The case triggered a flood of complaints involving MPs' alleged media share-holding.

In late 2020 the court disqualified only one MP for breaking the law related to shareholdings in media firms and at the same time acquitted 57 other MPs of the same offence because these so-called media firms do not draw an income from media operations, according to Mr Phichai.

Moreover, a recent ruling by the Supreme Court in a case in which a Democrat candidate was accused of holding 200 shares in Advance Info Services, should help lessen Mr Pita's worries, said Mr Phichai.

The Supreme Court ruled the amount of shares owned by the candidate was not significant and did not give him any control of the company's operations. The case is likely to set a precedent for how future cases are decided, he said.

In Mr Phichai's view, iTV is not actively engaged in media operations, so Mr Pita is unlikely to suffer a fate similar to Mr Thanathorn's.

Win the battle, lose the war?

A source in the MFP, however, does not share Mr Phichai's opinions, saying the party may end up losing the prime minister post and it is discussing a possible scenario with Pheu Thai.

According to the source, if the EC's probe under Section 151 of the Criminal Code is not enough, some MPs will petition the court over his qualifications to ensure Mr Pita is in a bind.

The EC is investigating whether Mr Pita violated Section 151 which says those who apply to run in an election while knowing they are not qualified or prohibited from doing so are liable to a prison term of one to 20 years and a fine of 20,000-200,000 baht. They are also banned from running in an election for 20 years.

With these legal hurdles, Pheu Thai may get the top post while Mr Pita will become a deputy prime minister instead, the source said, adding the bloc will get no more than 30 votes from the Senate.

The source said distrust between the parties has emerged partly due to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's plan to return to Thailand. Pheu Thai is believed to be eyeing key posts including the prime minister to prepare for Thaksin's homecoming.

According to the source, the main reason the coalition's formation led by the MFP-led bloc has encountered so many hiccups is the MFP did not win the election decisively.

According to the source, the MFP may even have to give up the House speaker post to Pheu Thai because the party's candidates may not be up to the job.

The House speaker has to have charisma and be well-versed in regulations. The party's candidates may be out of their depth when challenged by veteran MPs, said the source.

"The MFP could be isolated if it insists on getting the role and letting the issue be settled in a free vote. There is no guarantee other parties will support the MFP," said the source, who prefers Pheu Thai deputy leader Sutin Klungsang or Pheu Thai leader Cholnan Srikaew for the post.

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