Millions of Thais are gripped by suspense over the complicated delays in electing a new prime minister. 

 Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich   

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The anti-establishment winner of May's national election lost support to become prime minister on August 2 when his coalition dumped him, clearing the way for a conservative real-estate tycoon's possible nomination.

Parliament's House election winner on May 14, Pita Limjaroenrat, was ousted because he had virtually no chance to become prime minister after the Senate rejected him in July for demanding the monarchy's lese majeste defamation protection -- Section 112 in the Criminal Code -- be weakened.

Many in his eight-party, 312-member coalition also feared being perceived as anti-112 which could open them to dangerous, expensive, time-consuming -- and potentially punishable -- allegations and lawsuits, real and dismissible, filed by litigious staunch royalists.

Mr. Pita's departure from his hurriedly regrouping coalition also banished him and his new Move Forward Party (MFP) to the opposition.

His dramatic and embarrassing downfall came after the idealistic, inexperienced, yuppie politician won 14 million votes -- 38 percent of the total -- and 151 seats in Parliament's 500-member elected House.

By becoming the biggest House winner, Mr. Pita and his MFP symbolized the public's rejection of the military's 2006 and 2014 coups and political domination.

His problems began on July 13 when the U.S.-trained military and their royalist supporters in the hostile junta-appointed Senate angrily rejected Mr. Pita because of his threat to weaken Section 112 which punishes violators with up to 15 years imprisonment.

Emphasizing the constitutional monarchy's protection, the constitution begins:

"The King shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated. No person shall expose the King to any sort of accusation or action."

Mr. Pita's vow to "amend" Section 112 became a political sword which the Senate used against him.

To become prime minister, a candidate needs to win 375 votes from parliament's combined 749 total, after one senator resigned, and be endorsed by King Vajiralongkorn.

Only 13 Senators voted for Mr. Pita in July along with his coalition supporters.

Next up is Pheu Thai Party (PTP) parliamentarian Srettha Thavisin, the second-place rival in Mr. Pita's collapsed coalition.

Mr. Srettha is expected to be nominated by a regrouped coalition headed by his PTP.

"If Pheu Thai nominates me for the next prime ministerial vote, the Section 112 amendment must be left untouched," Mr. Srettha said on August 1.

"Pheu Thai has made it clear it will not amend or scrap the law," he said.

"The party wants to form a new government and move the country forward. It is necessary to defuse tensions over Section 112.

"Today, addressing the bread-and-butter issues affecting people's daily lives is an overriding priority. Improving the economy must come first," Mr. Srettha said.

"Pheu Thai and Mr. Srettha will keep Section 112 intact, and the new government will not have Move Forward in its coalition," Pheu Thai's political strategist Cholnan Srikaew announced on August 2.

"Pheu Thai will try to gather enough [combined Parliament] votes, and Move Forward will be in the opposition.

"Pheu Thai will lift the nation out of crisis," Mr. Cholnan said.

He promised to announce a regrouped PTP-led coalition soon.

If Mr. Srettha becomes prime minister, he was expected to use his experience as a competitive real estate tycoon to lead a capitalist government underpinned by technocrats, military supporters, royalists, conservatives, and elite families.

Mr. Srettha, or whoever else is nominated by the House majority, needs to also be endorsed by the Senate.

That vote in Parliament's combined House and Senate was scheduled for August 4, but the Constitution Court decided on August 3 to open an investigation into the Senate's July decision to stop Mr. Pita from being nominated more than once.

After the court accepted that case August 3, the entire prime ministerial nomination process was postponed -- possibly until August 16 -- when the court makes a decision.

The court could overrule the Senate's refusal to let Mr. Pita be nominated a second time, or not touch the senators' vote against Mr. Pita's renomination.

Mr. Pita was rejected on July 13 by all but 13 senators in Parliament's 250-seat militarized Senate, which was created by the junta in 2019.

The Senate was apparently designed to block candidates and legislation perceived as competing for power in a centuries-long, traditional struggle against the military, royalists, elite families, and their supporters in this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country.

In July, the Constitutional Court suspended Mr. Pita from Parliament because of a conflict-of-interest case against him pending before the court.

Mr. Pita inherited 42,000 shares of a Thai media company, iTV, from his father. 

Parliamentarians are not allowed to have links with media companies because it could unfairly enhance their political power.

Mr. Srettha's odds of winning on August 4 were difficult to predict.

His 141-seat PTP party was spawned by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was toppled in a 2006 military coup and is dodging 12 years imprisonment for four convictions.

Those convictions include a real estate scam benefiting his wife, malfeasance in the government's lottery games, authorizing loans to Myanmar which bought equipment owned by his family, and using proxies to hold his telecommunications stock shares in violation of election laws, according to the Bangkok Post.

Many coup supporters allege Mr. Thaksin, 74, is greedy, corrupt, and interested in massing power only for his family and cronies.

His supporters insist "Thaksinomics" lifted many impoverished rural Thais out of debt, established free health care, bestowed scholarships on students, and provided other populist relief.

Mr. Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, fled abroad dodging a prison sentence for financial mismanagement after her administration was toppled in a 2014 coup by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who was then army chief.

Those lingering hatreds against the Shinawatra family lessen Mr. Srettha's chances of gaining the Senate's support because he is perceived by some as too loyal to Mr. Thaksin.

Mr. Srettha's PTP is led by Thaksin's daughter Paethongtan Shinawatra but she was considered to politically naive and alienating to be nominated by her party to be prime minister.

Mr. Srettha was expected to also attract loyalty from Red Shirts who staged a nine-week, pro-Thaksin insurrection in Bangkok in 2010 which ended when the military cracked down, leaving more than 90 people -- mostly civilians -- dead.

Mr. Thaksin meanwhile is needling the political tension by declaring he will return to Thailand on August 10.

That taunting announcement brought cheer to his millions of supporters and derision by critics who pointed at his previous 20 promises to return home.

Security forces announced Mr. Thaksin would be arrested upon arrival in Thailand and immediately be taken to prison.

Within hours of Mr. Pita being booted from the coalition, a small pro-Pita demonstration angrily gathered in front of the PTP's headquarters where a few effigies, wrapped in white bed sheets, were splattered with blood-red paint and set on fire after protesters squirted them with lighter fluid.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at