Thailand’s Election Commission says top candidate for prime minister may have broken election law

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand’s state election commission said Wednesday it concluded there was evidence that the best candidate to become the country’s next prime minister, Move Forward party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, had violated the electoral law and referred his case to the Constitutional Court for decision.

The committee’s decision, announced in a press release, means the court could order Pita’s suspension from office until the decision is made. In theory, this does not rule out his being appointed as prime minister by parliament on Thursday, as the post need not be held by a lawmaker. But he makes his confirmation by a vote in parliament, which was already uncertain, even less likely.

The Going Forward party won a surprise first-place finish in May’s general election, winning 151 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives and the most popular votes. Move Forward brought together an eight-party, 312-seat coalition that it had planned to take to power. But the unlikely endorsement of members of the unelected 250-seat Conservative Senate, which is participating in the vote for prime minister, is making Pita’s path to power difficult.

The case against Pita hinges on his alleged ownership of shares in a media company, which would bar him from running for office. The complaint against him, filed by a member of a rival political party, related to the period of the 2019 parliamentary elections. Pita had disputed the basis of the claim, which extended to his failure to include the actions in a declaration mandatory heritage.

The case the commission sent to court goes beyond a technical violation of election law and accuses Pita of running for office knowing he was ineligible, a criminal offense punishable by a maximum prison term of three years and/or a fine of up to 60,000 baht ($1,720). The party faces a fine of up to 100,000 baht ($2,865).

Acting Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s chief legal adviser, reportedly said that if the leader of the Pita party is deemed unqualified to endorse his party’s candidates in the May elections, the polls could be canceled and a new election called.

Since the election, there have been fears that Thailand’s conservative establishment is using what its political opponents see as dirty tricks to retain power. For a decade and a half, he repeatedly used the courts and so-called independent state agencies such as the Electoral Commission to issue controversial rulings aimed at crippling or sinking political opponents.

The 2019 disbandment of the Future Forward party, the precursor to Move Forward, sparked vigorous street protests by pro-democracy activists that only ceased when the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

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