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Thai PM candidate Pita open to managing pace of reform agenda

Thai PM candidate Pita open to managing pace of reform agenda
Move Forward Party Leader Pita Limjaroenrat speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bangkok, Thailand on July 18.
PHOTO: Reuters

BANGKOK - Thailand's prime ministerial hopeful said on Tuesday (July 18) he was willing to manage the pace of his Move Forward party's ambitious reform drive if he becomes leader, but vowed no retreat from a plan to change a law that forbids insulting the monarchy.

In an interview with Reuters on the eve of his second bid to win the top job, Pita Limjaroenrat, who led his party to election victory in May, described efforts by the military establishment to block him as like a "broken record" and said Thailand had entered a new era with a public hankering for change.

Pita, 42, plans to contest his second parliamentary vote on the premiership on Wednesday, after failing last week to win the required backing of more than half of the legislature, as the conservative, military-appointed Senate closed ranks to thwart him.

"It was absolutely expected, the same thing, same venue. Broken record. But the sentiment of the era has changed," he said in the interview.

"Despite what happens tomorrow there has been progress in society. They demand something new, something fresh."

Buoyed by massive youth support for its disruptive, anti-establishment reform agenda, Move Forward was the surprise winner of the May 14 election, thrashing conservative rivals in what was seen as a resounding rejection of nearly a decade of government led or backed by the royalist military.

But it is hamstrung by a constitution drafted by the military, which makes it very difficult for elected parties to form a government without the endorsement of the Senate, which typically votes in line with the powerful army and conservative establishment.

'Pre-planned' obstacles

Pita faces more obstacles on Wednesday, when some senators will try to block his second nomination for prime minister, arguing a motion that was not endorsed cannot be re-submitted.

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On the same day, the Constitutional Court will consider a complaint against him seeking his disqualification as a lawmaker over a shareholding issue deemed in violation of election rules.

"The court decision, parliamentary rules and also the senators - that's three-to-four obstacles coincidentally happening in a day," he said.

"That's fine. It's something that was pre-planned."

Move Forward agenda is controversial, taking on issues long seen as untouchable in Thailand, including its plans to tackle business monopolies, end military conscription and remove generals from politics.

He said Move Forward was "not the party of the radical or the young", but had an opportunity to serve all of Thailand.

Its boldest aim is to change article 112 of the criminal code, under which hundreds of people have been charged with insulting the monarchy, which carries jail terms of up to 15 years.

The military has for decades invoked its duty to defend the monarchy to justify intervention in politics. Critics say it has used the law against royal insult to stifle dissent.

Pita said the decision on 112 was ultimately one for parliament and Move Forward would not dominate the issue, nor would it back away from its agenda in order to get a smoother passage to office.

Amending 112 was not a threat to the palace, he said, but would ensure the monarchy was not politicised and that the law was not misused.

"I'm still sticking to what I promised the voters, the institution is above politics. That's the only option for governance in this country," he said.

He added: "I cannot look them in the eye if I'm walking away from this issue."

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