The military says its top priority is to defend the monarchy.  file name: ©copyright-by-richard_s_ehrlich-IMG_4097ps2cr.jpg 

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Millions of Thais were gripped with suspense, misery, or delight seeing a Shakespearean display of political knives and an agonized "Et tu Brute?" echoing in the hostile Senate when it voted twice to crush popular Pita Limjaroenrat's chances to become prime minister.

The grim, militarized, junta-appointed 249-member Senate was not a welcoming place for Pita, 44, who won a nationwide House election in May, promising to reform the U.S.-trained military and stop them repeatedly seizing power through coups.

Pita also wanted to "reform" the constitutional monarchy, slash the military's opaque budget and lucrative commercial enterprises, downsize the swollen number of generals, end conscription, and disband the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) which is currently grappling with Islamist Malay-Thai separatists in the south.

The Senate's votes on July 13 and 19 ended Pita's current climb to the prime ministry.

Pita and his new Move Forward Party (MFP) tried to present themselves as altruistic and committed to Thailand's pro-democracy struggle in this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation dominated by a sclerotic, authoritarian political system designed after a 2014 coup.

Pita appeared in public as a jovial yuppie brimming with bright ideas, confident the Senate wouldn't stop him.

Earnest students supported him from the beginning, convincing their older relatives that Pita would improve lives.

Born into an elite family, he received a Masters degree in public policy from Harvard Kennedy School, and an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Pita became a rice bran oil entrepreneur and embarked on other financial ventures before becoming a politician in 2019.

Pita's enemies among the entrenched military, royalists, Thailand's wealthiest families often view politicians as mistake-prone greedheads, needing to be controlled.

"His Move Forward Party’s proposals are too radical for almost all Senators -- reform the monarchy and diminish the power of the military -- in a country where these two 'M's dominate," Paul Chambers, a lecturer in Thai politics at Naresuan University, said in an interview.

If Pita had become Thailand's leader, Bangkok's friendly relations with Washington and Beijing were expected to undergo subtle changes.

"Pita would move Thailand further away from China.

"Part of this is because his party supports a foreign policy which backs more democratic governments -- most of which happen to be pro-U.S.," Chambers said.

If Pita had triumphed, U.S.-Thai military cooperation would likely have been "strengthened, with joint military exercises likely to receive more special support," Wanwichit Boonprong, a Rangsit University political science lecturer, said in an interview.

Pita and his MFP won the most votes and seats -- 14 million votes and 151 seats -- on May 14 in nationwide elections for Parliament's 500-seat House of Representatives.

He boosted that into a disparate eight-party coalition totaling 312 of the 500 newly elected House members.

But Pita needed 63 more House or Senate votes to reach a qualifying 375 total to become prime minister -- more than half of Parliament's combined 749.

After Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's 2014 coup, a now-defunct junta -- the National Council for Peace and Order -- appointed Parliament's senators in 2019.

The Senate was apparently designed to protect the military and royalists from losing control to an elected House.

Nearly half of the senators are active or retired military and police officers.

They include relatives of military officers who gained power after the 2014 coup.

"In Thai political history, the military has been drawn into the whirlpool of conflict, and has become a major player as the creator and destroyer of democracy," Wanwichit said.

"The problem of the army at this time is that the size of the organization is too large, and there are approximately more than a thousand generals who have not retired, affecting the management of the budget," he said.

Senators said their strongest reason for voting against Pita was his campaign to reform the powerful, usually untouchable, monarchy which is defended by a royal defamation lese majeste law -- Section 112 in the Criminal  Code -- punishable by 15 years in prison for perceived criticism.

In addition to that law, Thailand's 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."

"Great King" Vajiralongkorn, crowned in 2019, is also technically commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but a military chain of command usually directs their movements.

Whoever is designated as prime minister must receive the king's endorsement.

When Pita got only 13 Senate votes on July 13, he staggered toward a second Senate vote on July 19.

That's the day his political career collapsed.

With Pita sidelined, the next top three contenders for the prime ministry appear to be:

*** 1. First place: Srettha Thavisin, a real estate tycoon in the rival, 141-seat Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party which won second place in May 14's House election and joined Pita's coalition.

Srettha would also face the Senate which may or may not confirm him when the combined parliament votes on July 27.

"He [Srettha] has more chances than Pita in the Senate, but because he is closely connected to Thaksin [Shinawatra], the Senate will also perhaps not select him," Chambers said.

In a 2006 coup, the military toppled then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who fled abroad dodging 12 years of imprisonment for corruption and other convictions.

Self-exiled Thaksin continues to influence his political party's latest incarnation, the Pheu Thai Party, led by his daughter Paethongtan "Ung Ing" Shinawatra.

Compared with Srettha, Thaksin's daughter Paethongtan is less acceptable to the Senate as prime minister because she is a Shinawata.

Thaksin previously enabled his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to become prime minister, but her government was ousted by Prayuth's 2014 coup.

A coalition led by Srettha however could attract more elected political parties and Senate support.

"If Srettha becomes prime minister, the first deputy prime minister can either go to Pita, or Move Forward deputy leader Sirikanya Tansakun," wrote Khaosod English news columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk.

"Anything less than that, then we are probably witnessing the breakup of the current [Pita-led] pro-democracy coalition...that will see Move Forward being left in the opposition camp.

"Do not underestimate how ludicrous and low Thai politics can get in the weeks ahead," Pravit said.

*** 2. Second place: Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who is also deputy prime minister.

Retired Army General Prawit is a lifelong colleague of Prime Minister Prayuth and joined his regime after Prayuth's 2014 coup.

Prawit is considered a shrewd political operator with allies on many sides.

He recently created his Palang Pracharat party so he could contest the elections.

"With only 40 MPs (Members of Parliament), his party is small but he is most likely to obtain the necessary amount of support from the Senate to become prime minister," Chambers said.

"After all, he chaired the committee which appointed the senators in 2019.

"He could cobble together a coalition of 188 MPs, representing all of the MPs [who are] opposed to the 312 MPs in the coalition led by Pita.

"This unfortunately means that Prawit would lead a minority government. It would be difficult to pass any legislation," Chambers said.

But there is a solution for Prawit or others.

"Such a minority government could be formed with the support of senators," former foreign minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said in an interview.

"Once formed, they would hope to get defectors from the 'democratic' side to join in, thereby turning them into a majority in the House of Representatives.

"It could be explained [internationally] that this was not a military coup d'etat, but rather a legitimate parliamentary maneuver under the constitution -- a part of Thailand's democratic process after an election," Kantathi said.

*** 3. Third place: Anutin Charnvirakul, health minister and leader of his recently created Bhumjai Thai (Proud to be Thai) party which gained an impressive 71 House seats.

"He was responsible for decriminalizing marijuana two years ago and it helped his businesses," Chambers said.

Mr. Anutin might be offered the prime ministry by a coalition needing his 71 seats to clinch a majority.

The appointed Senate's five-year term ends in 10 months -- and a fresh bid by Pita and his coalition could then be tried.

"I think he [Pita] and his party will be happy to be in the opposition if Pita fails to become prime minister," Chambers said.

"The Move Forward Party need only wait until May 2024 when the Senate will lose its constitutional powers to help select the prime minister.

"After May 2024, the House decides alone. Thus, next May, the MFP-led opposition could easily obtain a no-confidence vote in the House against a minority government and replace it in office."

In the latest twist of the political blades, two devastating and chilling decisions on July 19 stopped Pita becoming prime minister and simultaneously suspended him from parliament.

"Until we meet again," Pita told parliament as he rose from his seat, obeying the Constitutional Court's sudden order to immediately exit the building.

"I'm acknowledging and complying with it, until a verdict has been made," Pita said to the combined legislature.

He unclipped his parliament identification badge from his suit collar, placed it on the desk in front of his House chair, and walked away.

Pita could still be nominated to the prime ministry, because a prime minister does not have to be a parliament member -- but his political future appears to be sinking in a legal quagmire.

The Constitutional Court accepted a case of alleged conflict of interest against Pita, linked to his inheritance of 42,000 stock market shares of iTV, a Thai media company.

Anyone holding shares in a media company cannot be in parliament.

Pita remains suspended from parliament until the court rules on his case which could include a ban on political activity for 10 years, imprisonment, and his party dissolved.

"I am not worried about the case, because the shares are not mine," Pita earlier tweeted.

"It's a family heritage, and I'm the manager of that. I informed the National Anti-Corruption Commission about this a long time ago."

"We are very closely watching the post-election developments -- that includes the recent developments in the legal system, which are of concern," U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on July 17 before the court's announcement.

The court's suspension order was announced while Pita his newly elected MFP colleagues sat in a combined House and Senate parliament.

They were listening to an angry Senate debate about Pita's ability to be nominated for a second time after the Senate voted him down on July 13.

Hours after the Court forced Pita to leave parliament on July 19, the remaining House and Senate rejected his quest to have a second round of parliamentary voting on his renomination.

Parliament rejected that second renomination option on July 19 by a 395-312 vote, with eight abstaining and one declining to vote, ending his chances.

Pita was empowered by his 151 MFP seats, plus backing from seven other rival elected House parties, totaling 312 House seats.

When he was nominated as a candidate to be prime minister for the first time on July 13, he failed to win the 375 total votes required from parliament's combined 749 House and Senate, to clinch a majority.

Pita received only 334 House and Senate votes, while 182 voted against him and 199 abstained. 

Only 13 senators voted for him on July 13.

Pita was the biggest winner in May 14's national House elections when he and his MFP gained 14 million popular votes.

Pita's eight-party coalition may stay together or reconfigure with other parties without him and his MFP -- and exile them to the opposition.

Pita is feared and despised by many in the military, royalist, and financial establishment.

The unpopular Senate, appointed in 2019 after a 2014 coup, angrily rejects his plan to lighten Thailand's severe prison sentences for royal defamation under the constitution's widely feared Section 112.

Many officers in the military oppose Pita because he wants to forbid their profitable commercial enterprises, reduce the number of generals, put civilians in charge of military promotions, "demilitarize" the government, and end conscription.

The Senate and its royalist and elite supporters also fear Pita's plans to "demonopolize" this rapidly modernizing, capitalist country and challenge family-held companies.

Pita also directly challenged Thailand's bureaucracy and political fiefdoms with plans to "decentralize" their clannish structure and byzantine regulations.

Prime Minister Prayuth, the former armed forces chief who seized power in a 2014 coup, helped appoint the Senate in 2019 apparently to block parliament from passing legislature challenging the military, royalists, elite families, and their supporters.

The Senate is widely blamed for smothering Thailand's effort to have an elected government free of military domination, and ensure an end to coups.

In May, Pita and the nation were surprised when his MFP became the biggest party in the House, supported by a new generation of voters.

Pita became an overnight celebrity.

Thai media splashed his grinning selfies.

His eyes anxiously searched for TV cameras to display a beaming smile and waving hand, giving him the appearance of an enthusiastic, preening, idea-filled politician who has just arrived and is raring to go.

Pita appeared stunned when the Senate voted against him, and he dabbed his watery eyes in parliament when the voting ended.

Pita denied he wept, and said was applying contact lens fluid.

"It would be an absurd strangeness that a winning party" -- in May's House elections -- "becomes opposition leader, and not even in the coalition government," Pita said on July 18, according to Reuters.

"We can't explain it to the world."

Pita gave the Senate a reason to stop him when he insisted on "reforming" the decades-old lese majeste law -- fighting words in this traditional, Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation.

During the 1960s Cold War, Washington helped boost Thailand's monarchy with U.S.-financed propaganda and other ways, to counter Chinese-backed Thai communists from targeting the throne.

Today, many Thais perceive the constitutional monarchy as an untouchable, revered, and stabilizing force against disloyal and corrupt politicians.

The third-biggest House election winner, Health Minister Anutin Charnveerakul, said on July 19 he would not give his Bhumjai Thai party's prized 71 House seats to any coalition which includes Pita or his MFP.

Anutin opposes Pita for trying to change the lese majeste law.

Anutin also helped legalize cannabis in Thailand in 2023.

Pita campaigned to return cannabis to the illegal "narcotics" list to stop recreational use, close thousands of cannabis shops across the country, end farmers' agricultural expansion, and restrict cannabis to medical purposes.

Pheu Thai also vowed to make cannabis illegal again except for strict medical use.

Pita's downfall was partially due to inexperience, overconfidence, and a myopic sense of entitlement.

To keep his arguing coalition together, he gave up his demand to appoint a MFP House member to be the influential speaker of the House, who manages the priority of new debates and legislation.

In exchange for that MFP loss, Pita received Pheu Thai's support to nominate him twice in the combined parliament for prime minister -- despite widespread predictions that the anti-Pita Senate would stop him.

Ultimately, he failed to gain either the speaker position or the prime ministry.

But Thailand's political usurping and defiance is not expected to mimic Caesar's experience.

In the year 44 BC, the Roman Empire's senators led by Brutus and Cassius assassinated dictator Julius Caesar.

In Shakespeare's play, a fictitious Caesar cries out in Latin, "Et tu Brute?" when his turncoat colleague Brutus stabs him.

Two years later in 42 BC, real-life Brutus committed suicide.