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Blocked from power, 8-party Thai coalition says it will negotiate with conservative opponents

BANGKOK — A coalition of Thai political parties, struggling to form a government after two failed attempts, announced Friday it would try again next week to persuade conservative parliamentary opponents to back it, and suggested it might consider removing its most progressive member which won May’s election.

The eight-party grouping met in Bangkok on Friday for the first time since a combined sitting of the House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday voted to block Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the progressive Move Forward Party, from becoming prime minister. Pita was rejected last week in a first vote on whether to name him prime minister, and was knocked out of contention on Wednesday when a procedural vote decided he could not be nominated a second time.

Pita was further handicapped by a Constitutional Court decision on Wednesday that suspended him from Parliament while it decides whether he violated the constitution, as the state Election Commission said. The allegation involves whether he ran for office while holding prohibited shares in a media company, a charge he has denied.

The Move Forward Party finished first in May’s general election and assembled the eight-party coalition, which together held a majority of 312 seats in the 500-member House. But under the military-enacted constitution, a new prime minister must receive the support of a combined majority of both the House and 250-seat unelected conservative Senate, and Pita fell short by more than 50 votes, capturing just 324 in all.

The Senate, which was appointed by a previous military government and serves as the royalist establishment’s bulwark against change, gave only 13 votes to Pita. Many senators strongly oppose his party’s call for amendment of a law that makes it illegal to defame Thailand’s royal family. Critics say the law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, has been abused as a political weapon.

After Pita’s failure, the coalition agreed to replace him as its choice for prime minister with a candidate from the Pheu Thai party, which won the second most seats in May’s election. It is to name the candidate next Wednesday.

Pita was Move Forward’s sole candidate, while Pheu Thai registered three names: real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin; Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup; and Chaikasem Nitsiri, the party’s chief strategist.

Srettha, who has emerged as the favorite, entered active politics only last year.

Friday’s meeting of coalition partners decided to try to win over enough senators and House members by offering possible compromises on its agenda, most notably the reform of the law against royal defamation, before the next parliamentary vote on Thursday.

“This is the way we think would be best,” Chonlanan Srikaew, leader of the Pheu Thai party, said after the meeting.

But there is growing speculation that the only way to break the deadlock would be to remove the Move Forward Party from the coalition. Asked about the likelihood of this, Chonlanan agreed there was an option “that may exclude a certain party from the equation.”

He said the meeting agreed to leave that up to Pheu Thai.

“The thing we said today is a promise that we will try our best to act within the principles upheld by the eight parties,” he said. “Any course of action that is outside the agreement made today by the eight parties -– this is just something we are allowed to do. That will be what Pheu Thai thinks and does only after the other options have failed.”

Move Forward’s victory in May’s election was powered by a widespread desire, particularly among young people, for deep structural change in Thailand after nine years of military-aligned rule. The party also wants to reduce the influence of the military, which has staged more than a dozen coups since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and of big business monopolies.

Any move to cast the popular party into opposition, instead of government, could lead to a return of sustained street protests, and several demonstrations are planned for the coming days.

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