Thailand hopes to prevent a repeat of the bloodshed in 2010 when the army crushed a nine-week Bangkok insurrection which wanted self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra to return without imprisonment. photo credit:  Photo copyright Richard S. Ehrlich archive     

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Job opening: Prime minister.

Must be able to end Thailand's cycle of coups by satisfying the demands of Thailand's U.S.-trained, putsch-empowered military.

Must be able to seduce junta-appointed senators into supporting the next government, and continue capitalist Thailand's balancing of relations with the U.S. and China.

Unfortunately for Pita Limjarouenrat -- the May 14 election winner to be prime minister -- the Election Commission on June 9 opened a "criminal case" against him for alleged election fraud, punishable by 10 years in prison and a political ban for 20 years.

Mr. Pita is vulnerable because his new Move Forward Party's (MFP) nationwide election victory was buoyed by idealistic, anti-military voters.

That rang alarms throughout Thailand's increasingly insecure army establishment.

Put on the khaki uniform of a politically entrenched general, and it is easy to understand why you might regard Mr. Pita's election as a challenge.

Mr. Pita campaigned to strip army officers of political power and lucrative commercial enterprises, end conscription, dissolve the democracy-blocking, military-appointed 250-seat Senate, and dismantle the murky Internal Security Operations Command, created by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the mid-20th century's anti-communist era.

"There certainly appears to be a conservative campaign in Thailand to diminish Pita's popularity," said Paul Chambers, a Naresuan University lecturer specializing in military and democratization in Asia.

"This is because Pita is vehemently opposed by the traditional forces of monarchy and military in Thailand," Mr. Chambers said in an interview.

Mr. Pita's victory gave him 151 seats, cheered by most who voted on May 14 for Parliament's House of Representatives.

Many voters appeared fed up with the military's rule, imprisonments, censorship, and manipulation of politics after the army's coups in 2006 and 2014.

Chillingly for some generals, polls showed many conscripts voted MFP.

Whatever coalition government forms after all the politicking finishes, is expected to continue welcoming Washington and Beijing and deflect perceptions that Bangkok leans one way or the other.

Mr. Pita is meanwhile wrestling with the junta's 2017 constitution, rewritten after then-Army Chief Gen. Prayuth's 2014 coup.

That charter's restrictions on elected politicians could stop Mr. Pita in his tracks, unless he meanders its legal maze and reaches the Senate, due to meet in July and vote alongside the House in August on who can be prime minister.

Mr. Pita would need to woo confrontational, junta-appointed senators into backing his coalition, otherwise they could support someone else.

Many analysts predict the Senate will ultimately block Mr. Pita from the prime ministry.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission's "probe could doom Pita," the Bangkok Post reported on June 11.

"Heavier [political] weapons are being transported into this warzone, meaning the 151 anti-aircraft guns are just the beginning," said former election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, referring to election law Section 151 concerning Parliament.

Mr. Pita is defending himself against charges of possibly violating Section 151 when he initially ran for Parliament in 2019.

Under Section 151, it is illegal for a person to run for election in Parliament, while knowing they are unqualified because of a conflict of interest, financial fraud, or other reasons.

Mr. Pita's eligibility depends on his recent handling of his late father's 42,000 shares in a Bangkok-based media company, iTV, which Mr. Pita inherited in 2006.

To convict Mr. Pita, the Election Commission would need evidence he "was knowingly aware" that any candidate, who holds stock shares in a media company, is disqualified from running for Parliament.

"Nobody is playing dirty politics," said Senator Seree Suwanpanon, responding to claims that the iTV case is intentionally being used to destroy Mr. Pita's political career.

"Pita stumbled on his own feet, but blamed others for crossing his legs," Senator Seree said.

An editorial cartoon in the Bangkok Post showed Mr. Pita desperately fleeing toward the prime minister's office, chased by a half-naked zombie with an oversized head shaped like a battered television screen labelled iTV.

"The Walking Dead!" the cartoon's caption described Mr. Pita and the zombie.

If the Election Commission convicts Mr. Pita of a criminal offense, it can forward the case to Bangkok's Criminal Court for trial and possible punishment.

"Meanwhile, neither the Election Commission or the court has ever cast doubt that perhaps Prayuth, as a former coup-maker and junta leader, should not be qualified to compete as a prime minister candidate -- never," wrote columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk on June 11.

In a move widely perceived as clumsy, too late, and suspicious, Mr. Pita said last week that he recently sold the 42,000 shares to his relatives, to stop people thinking he owned them, after the allegations about his role as the estate's handler emerged.

The case twisted further on June 12 when a purported video surfaced of iTV's shareholders, which allegedly does not match iTV's transcript of what was said at a 2023 gathering describing its current status as a media company.

If Mr. Pita fails to become prime minister, angry protests might again bloody Bangkok's streets, led by his supporters, according to widespread warnings.

But if Mr. Pita succeeds, he could face similarly disruptive and deadly street protests led by his opponents.

Grim warnings and veiled threats of urban violence, voiced by both sides, are also purportedly being used to pressure politicians and institutions into agreeing with various backroom political deals.

In Thailand, crippled by more than a dozen coups since the 1930s, another putsch is always a possibility during turbulent times.

"Army Chief Gen. Narongpan Jitkaewthae said, just days before the May 14 general election, that he cannot promise that the army will stay in the barracks if there is political turmoil," columnist Mr. Pravit said.

"The only way to defeat yet another possible coup attempt is to have enough people on the streets willing to be imprisoned -- 100,000 or more, at least," Mr. Pravit wrote.

The commission's investigation of Mr. Pita could drag on for months -- and a criminal court case could take years.

That may allow Mr. Prayuth to stay on as caretaker prime minister until the case is settled.

"This is important because the next prime minister will oversee the selection of the new army, navy, air force, and supreme commanders and police commander -- all of which must be confirmed by September 30," Mr. Chambers said.

Alternatively, Mr Pita could become prime minister but later be disqualified if the case goes against him.

If Mr. Pita does go down, it will be deja vu for Thailand.

A Constitutional Court in 2009 ousted then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej because of a conflict of interest when he hosted a TV cooking show.

"The real stumbling block, that is likely to negate Mr. Pita's quest for the prime ministerial post, is the senators, many of them active and retired military officers and civil servants who dread the Move Forward Party's 'radical' policies," wrote columnist Veera Prateepchaikul on June 12.

A prime minister needs a coalition comprised of a combined majority of 376 of Parliament's 500-seat House of Representatives, who were elected on May 14, plus the 250-seat junta-appointed Senate.

Mr. Pita said his eight-party coalition has 312 House of Representatives seats.

No one knows how many senators will support him.

The Senate could side with the army, and combine its bloc with other House parties looking for a government to join.

If they form a coalition totaling more than 376, likely prime ministers could include Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, an industrialist leading the popular Bhum Jai Thai (BJT, Proud to be Thai) party.

Mr. Anutin's fame swelled when he helped turn Thailand on to legalized cannabis last year by leading the push to delete it from a list of "narcotics".

Mr. Anutin describes cannabis as medicine, lucrative for the public and investors in this mostly agricultural nation where marijuana has been used for centuries.

Mr. Anutin's success attracted millions of dollars worth of Thai, U.S., European, and other commercial and retail investment, resulting in thousands of cannabis shops punctuating Thailand's streets.

Mr. Anutin's legalization push also spawned medical schools in Thailand examining cannabis on the molecular level, and licensing Health Ministry staff to be "traditional doctors" to prescribe it.

His BJT snagged 71 seats in the election, making him a prized bloc.

Mr. Anutin proudly offered to join any coalition which kept cannabis legal.

He stayed away from Mr. Pita and others who want cannabis returned to the narcotics list, allowing narcs to hunt users who do not have prescriptions, and marijuana entrepreneurs who do not have medical-related licenses.

"I would say that Anutin, the leader of the Bhum Jai Thai party, has the best chance in the end," Mr. Chambers said.

"Anutin's Bhum Jai Thai was part of Prayuth's coalition government. He is acceptable to the Election Commission, Senate, and all political parties, except for Move Forward party."

If Mr. Anutin becomes prime minister, he "would provide civilian camouflage to the status quo of continuing monarchy-military dominance," Mr. Chambers said.

Thai society split in 2001 when royalists and the army feared the rising nouveau riche power of newly elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The army toppled him in a 2006 coup.

Over the years, courts convicted Mr. Thaksin of financial and other crimes, sentencing him to a total of 12 years in four cases.

Mr. Thaksin fled overseas, and repeatedly promises to return from self-exile, thrilling his Pheu Thai party and rattling the military.

The army also unleashed a 2014 coup against the government of Mr. Thaksin's sister, former elected prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Today, however, another leading contender for the prime ministry is a Pheu Thai party parliamentarian, businessman Srettha Thaweesin.

Mr. Thaksin's youngest daughter, politically inexperienced Paethongtan Shinawatra, was tipped to be prime minister, but her entitlement apparently weakened after her election failure to beat Mr. Pita, though she secured a seat.

The combined victories of Move Forward and Pheu Thai are "overwhelming and clear-cut and decisive, indicating and confirming that the majority of the people wanted change, wanted genuine democracy, and as such the people had rejected old-styled politics, military presence in politics, and the present constitution of 2017 which puts Thailand in a quasi-democratic and quasi-authoritarian situation," the former foreign minister Mr. Kasit said.

This Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation's lackluster economy, severe pollution, official corruption, tangled bureaucracy and other woes also led to Mr. Pita's victory, clobbering Prime Minister Prayuth who scored poorly in the elections.

"Thaksin is no longer a terrifying political demon for conservatives, and they are more concerned about the rise to power of Pita and the Move Forward Party," Wanwichit Boonprong, a political science lecturer at Bangkok's Rangsit University, said in an interview.

Alternatively, Prime Minister Prayuth's elderly deputy, Prawit Wongsuwon, could be boosted to the prime ministry, based on his lifelong career as a army officer and image as an astute political wheeler and dealer.


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