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Thai PM Hopeful Vows No Retreat from Party’s Reform Agenda

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Thailand’s prime ministerial hopeful said on Tuesday he was willing to adjust the pace of his Move Forward party’s ambitious reform drive if he becomes premier, 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 the military establishment’s effort to block him as like a “broken record” and said Thailand had entered a new era with a public hankering for change.

The 42-year-old Pita will on Wednesday contest his second parliamentary vote on the premiership, 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.

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

Move Forward captured massive youth support for its disruptive, anti-establishment reform agenda and 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 an electoral system designed by the military in which the Senate, which has typically voted in line with the powerful army and conservative establishment, can effectively block elected parties from forming a government.

Pita was backed by just 13 of the 249 senators last week. On Tuesday, he urged lawmakers not to make their vote about him, but about the principles of democracy.

“It would be an absurd strangeness that a winning party by a four million margin, a 10% margin, becomes opposition leader and not even in the coalition government,” he said.

“We can’t explain it to the world.”

‘Pre-planned’ obstacles

Pita faces more obstacles on Wednesday, when some senators will try to prevent him from contesting another parliamentary vote, arguing no candidate should be nominated twice.

On the same day, the Constitutional Court will consider a complaint against him seeking his disqualification 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 and institutions long seen as untouchable, including its plans to tackle business monopolies, end army conscription and keep generals out of politics.

Its boldest aim is to change article 112 of the criminal code, under which hundreds of people have been charged with insulting the monarchy, an offence that 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. Pita said the “sentiment of the era” meant the military could no longer have a monopoly over the relationship with the monarchy.

Amending 112 was not a threat to the palace but would ensure the law was not misused to “destroy political opponents”, he said, adding Move Forward’s approach on how to change it would be flexible, but it was ultimately for parliament to decide.

“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.

“I cannot look them in the eye if I’m walking away from this issue,” he said.

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