A Worrying Popularity

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When Thai voters cast their ballots for a new parliament in May, they roundly rejected allies of the military that had ruled the Southeast Asian country for nine years, opting instead for the progressive Move Forward and populist Pheu Thai political parties.

But when Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, won the approval of officials in Pheu Thai and six other parties to become prime minister, Thailand’s pro-military and pro-royalist Senate overruled that choice. Now the coalition is hoping that senators will support the Pheu Thai candidate Srettha Thavisin, a real estate mogul and political newcomer, for prime minister, Reuters reported.

The Thai military and supporters of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who technically is apolitical, oppose Move Forward because Pita and other party leaders are seeking to reduce the role of generals and royalists in government. Instead, they want to reform the policies that allow them to protect their positions of power, including the new constitution that the junta drafted in 2017, explained the Washington Post.

Move Forward, for example, wants to amend the 1956 lèse-majesté law that imposes a prison sentence of up to 15 years for anyone convicted of defaming, insulting, or threatening the royal family, noted Nikkei Asia. Pita would reduce the sentence to one year and limit the scope of complaints that could trigger the charges.

Pita’s opponents have filed a lawsuit against him, however, saying the proposal is the equivalent of “overthrowing the state,” a charge that could carry a hefty punishment. Pheu Thai leaders don’t support Move Forward’s proposal.

Pita, incidentally, is also facing a lawsuit that could prevent him from sitting in parliament. He allegedly owned shares in a media company when running for office, violating Thai law. He faces 10 years in jail, a fine, and a ban on participating in politics for 20 years.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha told reporters the vote he had scheduled for Thursday to select a new prime minister would be postponed pending a decision from the Constitutional Court. The state ombudsman has asked the court to rule whether it was legal to bar Pita from being nominated as a prime ministerial candidate a second time, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, Thai citizens like Pita. He’s a breath of fresh air, a fighter who has stood up to the conservative forces whom Human Rights Watch accused of committing the “unending repression” of their human rights and freedoms, including the right to express dissent.

“It seems that he is popular among a wide section of the population: the young, the old, the elderly, even the conservatives,” Napon Jatusripitak, a visiting fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank, told the Guardian.

Prayuth Chan-Ocha is the current albeit caretaker prime minister who assumed office in a coup in 2014. As Move Forward, Pheu Thai, and other parties figure out who will replace him, policymaking is stalled, reported Bloomberg. Meanwhile, exports are slowing due to worldwide economic troubles while protests in the streets against the military and royalists’ influence are threatening to dampen the country’s all-important tourism industry.

Those are dire threats that might disappear if people just got what they wanted.

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