Thailand edged closer to a political stalemate on Thursday as politicians gathered in parliament to vote for the next prime minister with no clear winner in sight.
The leading candidate, Pita Limjaroenrat, a charismatic young progressive, suffered a major setback ahead of the vote when Thailand’s Election Commission asked the Constitutional Court to suspend him from Parliament.
Mr Pita, who won a major political victory over the ruling military junta and its royalist allies during general elections in May, has been investigated for allegedly owning undeclared shares in a media company. On Wednesday, the Court also said it had accepted a complaint against Mr Pita over his calls to change a law that severely punishes criticism of the Thai monarchy.
No blow prevented Move Forward, Mr Pita’s party, and other coalition members from nominating him for prime minister on Thursday morning. But the setbacks make it much harder for him to win the support he needs to become prime minister, raising the prospect of fresh pro-democracy street protests in a country that appears tired of military rule.
Thailand has a long history of military coups, and Mr. Pita’s supporters largely see him as a victim of a military-dominated political system that they say is trying to thwart the will of Thai voters again.
The Electoral Commission’s decision to recommend a suspension will be “used as a new argument by the senators not to vote for Pita,” said Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University.
To become prime minister, Mr. Pita or one of his allies would need enough support in the 500-member House of Representatives to overcome opposition in the 250-member, military-backed Senate. Anything less than 376 votes – a simple majority of both chambers – would leave the process deadlocked.
Mr. Pita was widely expected to fall short of that goal on Thursday. A second vote for prime minister would take place on July 19, and a third, if necessary, a day later.
Mr. Pita’s progressive coalition may not be strong enough to withstand a loss if he is defeated. Members of Pheu Thai, the second largest party in the coalition, were expected to vote for Mr Pita but could try to form a new coalition led by one of their own candidates for prime minister after Thursday.
Pheu Thai could field Srettha Thavisin, a property tycoon who is considered a more palatable candidate to Thailand’s military establishment, if Mr Pita, 42, fails.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the general who took power after leading Thailand’s most recent military coup, in 2014, said on Tuesday he would retire from politics after a new government is formed. But the military and its allies may try to hold on to power in other ways.
“It’s very complicated, and it’s very hard to predict” who will win, Mr. Wanwichit said.
Thailand is one of the largest and most important economies in Southeast Asia, a region where several countries have slipped back into autocracy after experiments with democracy. The country was once a stable ally of the United States but has moved closer to China under the current junta.
Mr Pita told reporters on Wednesday that he believed the Electoral Commission’s move against him was unfair and should not have been so close to the parliamentary vote. Supporters of his coalition were expected to gather outside Parliament House in Bangkok ahead of the official vote for prime minister on Thursday evening.
The vote, and the likely protests that will follow, could exacerbate simmering anger against the junta in Thailand, and possibly trigger another bout of extended civil unrest like those that have accompanied previous military coups in the country.