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Thailand's parliament is meeting to choose a new prime minister

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Thailand's parliament met today to vote on a new prime minister but failed to reach consensus. The vote comes two months after a general election that saw the progressive Move Forward Party win the most seats and the right to nominate their candidate for the post after nine years of military-backed rule, but two government agencies have thrown the process in doubt by accepting cases that could see the candidate disqualified and the party dissolved. We spoke earlier with NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. I asked him to explain, how'd we get here?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Pita Limjaroenrat is the leader of the Move Forward Party, which won 151 seats and about 14 million votes - more than anyone - and the candidate backed by the eight-member coalition of pro-democracy parties that emerged from the May vote. And it's his name they're voting on today. There's no other.

But yesterday's announcements by the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court, respectively, were a real blow. Pita could end up being disqualified on the first charge for allegedly owning shares in a media company, which is against election rules. And the party could also be disqualified in the other complaint the Constitutional Court accepted, alleging the party essentially tried to overthrow the government with the king as its head when a proposed amending the lese majeste law that prohibits any criticism of the monarchy. Pita, of course, denies all of these allegations, and the timing of those two announcements just a day before today's vote is giving many people here pause, given Thailand's modern history as a coup-prone country where democratically elected governments don't always last very long.

NAPON JATUSRIPITAK: These moves reaffirm our understanding that legal instruments and referee bodies are the real counter-majoritarian safeguards that seem to kick in when the established political order in Thailand seems to be under threat, even if that threat happens to be backed by popular mandate.

SULLIVAN: That's Napon Jatusripitak. He's a research fellow at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak think tank in Singapore.

JATUSRIPITAK: I think these moves send a very strong signal that Pita will not be allowed to govern and that the Move Forward Party and the social movements that propelled it to victory in May may have shaken the tree. But it's abundantly clear that they will not be allowed to eat the fruits.

MARTÍNEZ: Michael, how did today's vote look for Pita before these new developments?

SULLIVAN: Not great, actually, because his coalition only controls 312 seats in the 500-seat elected House, which means he still needed about 65 votes from the unelected 250-member military-appointed Senate to put him over the top. Most of them, having been handpicked by the military, weren't Pita fans to begin with, especially when it came to Article 112, the lese majeste law, and yesterday's announcements probably didn't win him any new fans in the Senate either.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what happens next?

SULLIVAN: Well, now that today's vote is over, with no joy for Pita, Parliament will reconvene next week and try again. The coalition will likely put his name forward again, but it might try to choose another from one of the coalition partners. We just don't know. And we also don't know when the Constitutional Court is going to rule on either of these complaints. So I think we can expect a lot of drama in the coming days and weeks and a lot of unhappy Pita and Move Forward supporters who will feel disenfranchised if he and the party are denied.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is a political analyst at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

THITINAN PONGSUDHIRAK: So in a way, we are living in uncharted territory because we can have massive demonstrations across the country in protest against subversion of democratic outcome. But, you know, the conventional analysis will say that the powers that be have a way of putting down unrest and carrying on.

SULLIVAN: But either way, more drama ahead.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, seems so. That's NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok. Michael, thanks.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.