Thai court clears former PM hopeful Pita of violating election law

Pita Limjaroenrat, who led his reformist party to victory on wave of youth support, also reinstated as a lawmaker.

Move Forward Party leader and prime ministerial candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, attends a news conference following the general election, at the party's headquarters in Bangkok
Pita Limjaroenrat at the headquarters of the Move Forward Party in Bangkok, Thailand [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Thailand’s Constitutional Court has found Pita Limjaroenrat, the popular politician who was blocked from becoming prime minister, not guilty of violating election law and allowed him to be reinstated as a lawmaker.

On Wednesday, the court ruled by eight votes to one that Pita had not broken rules banning members of parliament from owning shares in media companies.

The case revolved around shares in ITV television station, which has not broadcast since 2007. Pita has said he inherited the shares from his father when he died.

His Move Forward Party, which was a surprise winner in parliamentary elections in May, fought on a progressive platform viewed as a threat to royalists and the military. But he was targeted by conservative politicians after unelected senators blocked him from becoming premier.

In July, the court temporarily suspended Pita from parliament after accepting a complaint against him alleging he was unqualified to run in the elections over the issue of holding shares in the media company. He later resigned as party leader.

The same court on Wednesday deemed the company had no broadcast concession and should not be considered a mass media organisation.

“ITV was not operating as a media company on the day the party submitted the respondent’s name for election,” judge Punya Udchachon said in reading the court’s verdict. “Holding the shares did not violate the law. The court has ruled his MP status has not ended.”

Al Jazeera’s Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said Pita still had ambitions for the top job. “I did ask him … while he was leaving whether he did still have ambitions for that post. He said he still did. He was still the party’s nominee for prime minister.”

Move Forward soared to victory on the promise of ending business monopolies and reforming a draconian law meting out long prison terms to anyone insulting the monarchy. After nearly a decade of military-controlled government, the win reflected a strong mandate for change.

“They won the elections, they were forced into opposition. I think they’re pretty happy to sit back for this term, but they’re still a very major political force. Voters in Thailand are still very hungry for the reform they voted for,” Al Jazeera’s Cheng said.

Too early to celebrate?

The victory will have come as a boost to the Harvard-educated politician viewed as a threat to the status quo, whose party has harnessed the power of social media to attract massive support from young, urban and liberal voters.

After the ruling, Pita said he aimed to return to parliament “as soon as possible”, though it was not clear when this would be.

“We are asking the parliament when I am allowed to be back in – there is a discrepancy between two organisations, the court and the parliament. When I am allowed, I will be there,” he told reporters.

But more challenges lie in wait.

The same court will next week decide whether Move Forward’s reformist policies are unconstitutional, constituting an attempt to “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the king as the head of state”. In particular, plans to scrap the law penalising defamation of Thailand’s royal family are in the line of fire.

Critics say the lese majeste law, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison, is often abused as a political weapon.

Both cases have been brought by conservative politicians, part of a two-decade battle for power in Thailand pitting a nexus of royalists, military and old money families against parties elected on populist or progressive platforms.

Move Forward’s current leader, Chaithawat Tulathon, has said that an unfavourable ruling next week could be used to advance future cases against them that could lead to the party’s dissolution.

Move Forward’s predecessor, the Future Forward party, was dissolved by a Constitutional Court ruling in 2020.

Supporters of the party have said the cases typify the sort of dirty tricks that have long been used by the ruling conservative establishment to hamper or oust political rivals, utilising the courts and nominally independent state agencies such as the Election Commission as legal weapons.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies