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Thai high court suspends prime minister candidate and will rule on whether he broke election law

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BANGKOK — Thailand’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday agreed to suspend Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, a 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 on the verge of a likely second vote in Parliament 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 Senate, which votes together with the lower house to name the new prime minister.

The court’s announcement still would allow Pita’s nomination and selection as prime minister, at least until a ruling.

Thailand’s state Election Commission had referred Pita’s case to the court, saying there was evidence he had violated election law over his alleged undeclared ownership of media company shares, which are banned for lawmakers.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

The leader of Thailand’s progressive Move Forward Party, which won a surprise first-place finish in May’s general election, is expected to have a last chance Wednesday to get the country’s parliament to confirm him as the next prime minister after he was rebuffed in a first round of voting.

Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat fell short last week when he failed to get enough support from the non-elected, military-appointed 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.

Pita is not guaranteed to get another chance at securing a needed majority in a combined vote of the House of Representatives and the Senate. There first needs to be a 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 is set to decide the matter after a scheduled debate. He was elected to the House from one of the smaller parties in the eight-party 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 faces the prospect of additional bad news on Wednesday. The Constitutional Court is set to decide whether to accept a referral from the state Election Commission for a ruling on whether Pita violated election law and whether he should be suspended from his duties as a member of parliament in the meantime. When and whether the court would rule on either point is not known.

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 likely 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.

Paetongtarn was touted as the party’s top prospect during the election campaign, but 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.

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