Thailand’s electoral authority has asked the country’s Constitutional Court to disqualify the leader of the youth-led progressive party that won the most seats in recently held general elections.
The referral of the case against Pita Limjaroenrat, who heads the Move Forward Party, came on Wednesday, a day before Thailand’s bicameral parliament is scheduled to vote on the 42-year-old businessman’s bid to become the next prime minister of the country.
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Pita has the backing of eight parties in an alliance seeking to form a new government.
But he has faced a number of complaints since his party’s election victory, which stunned Thailand’s royalist military elite, and last month the country’s Election Commission set up a special committee to investigate whether he was qualified to run for office.
“The Election Commission has considered the issue … and perceives that the status of Pita Limjaroenrat is considered to be voided, according to the Thai Constitution,” the poll body said in a statement, adding that it had concluded its probe.
It confirmed they will submit their findings to the Constitutional Court for “further consideration”.
The commission has been investigating whether Pita was unfit to register as a parliamentary candidate and was aware of it because of his ownership of shares in a media firm, which is prohibited under election rules.
Pita has downplayed the issue, arguing the shares in the firm, iTV, have since been transferred and the company was not an active media organisation. He faces disqualification, up to 10 years in jail and a 20-year ban from politics if found to have broken the rules.
It is unclear when the Constitutional Court may rule on the case, although it was due to meet later on Wednesday.
Under Thailand’s rules, even if Pita is suspended as a member of parliament, he is still eligible to run for prime minister.
“Pita still 100 percent has the right to go to the vote for prime minister,” Move Forward’s secretary-general, Chaithawat Tulathon, told a news conference. “We want to send out a message to all these agencies not to forget the people’s mandate.”
In a statement, the party went on to accuse the Election Commission of rushing its referral of the case and said Pita should have been given a chance to respond to and refute the allegations.
“The decision to submit a case to the court saying there was enough evidence, without informing him of any charges and not allowing him a chance to explain as under the regulations set by the [Election Commission] … is an abuse of power under the criminal code,” the party said in a statement.
Move Forward’s predecessor party, Future Forward, was also hit with a similar legal case in 2019, when the Constitutional Court disqualified billionaire leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a member of parliament.
The decision pushed tens of thousands of young demonstrators into the streets.
In the May 14 election, Move Forward won heavy support among the youth and the capital, Bangkok, on a platform of institutional change, including reducing the military’s political role, undoing monopolies and reviewing a controversial law against insulting the monarchy.
It won 151 of the 500 seats up for grabs, while another opposition party, Pheu Thai, won 141.
Their victory was widely seen as an overwhelming rejection of nine years of government led or backed by the army after its 2014 coup.
Pita has the backing of 312 legislators in Thailand’s lower house, but still needs 64 more votes, either from rival parties in the lower house or the military-appointed 250-member Senate, a challenge that could now be even more difficult.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of international relations at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, called the Election Commission’s move against Pita “an old trick to subvert the people’s will”.
“The system is rigged because the Election Commission is working with the Constitutional Court to stymie Pita’s premiership systematically,” he told Al Jazeera.
“These are agencies that are supposed to be impartial referees of the election and government formation, but we have seen that they are agents of the military-backed regime that appointed them in the first place.”
Thitinan predicted mass protests if Pita’s leadership bid were to be thwarted.
“The conservative forces will not get away so easily this time,” he said.
Already, leaders of the student-led protest movement that held huge rallies against the outgoing military-backed government issued calls for supporters of democracy to take to the streets later on Wednesday in at least five cities, including Bangkok.
“There must be a retaliation to the effort to destroy democracy,” protest leader Anon Nampa said in a handwritten note posted on Twitter.
“Whatever the conclusion, let all know that the fight has begun.”