Election Probe in Thailand Targets Pita Limjaroenrat

Thailand’s Election Commission has announced that it will investigate Pita Limjaroenrat, the front-runner in the May general election, to determine whether he violated election rules that would disqualify him from becoming the country’s next prime minister.

The investigation, announced last week, is centered on Mr. Pita’s shares of iTV, a company that used to be a news broadcaster but is now focused on advertising. Mr. Pita, 42, said he inherited the shares from his father. Thai law prohibits parliamentary candidates from owning media shares.

Thailand’s Election Commission said it needs 60 days to certify the results of the vote, after which the House of Representatives and the military-appointed Senate are expected to jointly vote for the prime minister in August.

But a month after Thai voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the military junta and handed Mr. Pita’s Move Forward Party a decisive victory, his fate as an elected leader remained unclear. Here’s what to know about the investigation.

Activists say the case against Mr. Pita and the Move Forward Party is part of a broader effort to roll back the results of the election and erode democracy in Thailand.

The May election had a record turnout and was seen by many to be a vote against military rule. It also showed broad support for Move Forward, one of the few major political parties in Southeast Asia with a progressive platform.

Arnon Nampa, a prominent Thai human rights lawyer, wrote on Facebook on Saturday that “people will take to the streets if the Thai elite makes elections meaningless.”

Mr. Pita’s party wants to overhaul the old power structures that have dominated Thailand for decades, shrink the military’s budget, eliminate conscription and weaken a law that criminalizes criticism of the Thai monarchy.

Move Forward has also said it wants to abolish monopolies, threatening the fortunes of the country’s wealthy aristocrats.

On June 20, a Senate committee will review the election commission’s order to investigate Mr. Pita, according to Senator Seree Suwanpanont.

A former elections commissioner, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, said the iTV case could go to the Constitutional Court if at least 50 members of Parliament or 25 senators sign a petition against Mr. Pita’s bid for prime minister.

Even before this case, Mr. Pita was contending with an obstinate Senate unlikely to support him as prime minister. Mr. Somchai wrote on Facebook that now, the investigation could result in more senators refusing to back him.

If Mr. Pita’s bid for prime minister fails, Pheu Thai, the second-largest party in Mr. Pita’s coalition, could field a candidate on its own as an alternative. Many expect Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister now living in exile, to be in the running.

Pheu Thai could also break away from Move Forward to form a new coalition that is more aligned with conservative parties. Pheu Thai has denied such plans.

Mr. Pita’s case echoes one filed against his predecessor, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in 2019. That year, the Constitutional Court disqualified Mr. Thanathorn from elected office because he was found to have held shares in a media company. He argued unsuccessfully that he had sold the shares to his mother before running for Parliament.

Mr. Thanathorn was the leader of the Future Forward Party, which was disbanded in 2020 by the Constitutional Court and is the predecessor of the Move Forward Party.

Last week, the Election Commission dismissed several complaints from critics of Mr. Pita seeking to disqualify his candidacy, but the commission decided to launch its own criminal probe to find out if Mr. Pita ran for Parliament knowing he was ineligible because of his iTV shares.

If he is found guilty, Mr. Pita could face up to 10 years in prison and a 20-year ban on voting.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pita told reporters that he was confident about his legal standing, saying the investigation “will not be an obstacle to me becoming Thailand’s 30th prime minister.”

On Thursday, iTV said that the minutes of the meeting did not intend to imply that it was still operating as a media company.

Politicians from the Move Forward Party have said the case is a blatant attempt to prevent them from forming a new government and taking back power from the conservative establishment and military-appointed Senate.

Earlier this month, Mr. Pita posted on Facebook that iTV had not operated as a media company since March 2007.

Thailand has been roiled by a leaked audio recording released last weekend of an April 26 iTV shareholders’ meeting. In the recording, the president of the company tells a shareholder that iTV is no longer in the media business.

But the recording contradicts the minutes of the same meeting, in which the president calls iTV a media entity. Those minutes have been submitted in the complaint against Mr. Pita.

In his Facebook post, Mr. Pita said that the shareholder raised the question a few days before he applied to run for prime minister and suggested that the inquiry was politically motivated.

Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting.

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