In a verdict that promises to shake Thailand’s political foundations, the Constitutional Court ruled today to dissolve the opposition Future Forward party for taking a loan from its founder and leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
The highly anticipated ruling found that a challenged 191 million baht (US$6.1 million) loan violated election laws that set strict limits on the amount any individual may donate to a political party.
The same law, analysts and critics say, does not apparently bar or limit loans to parties, which several ruling coalition parties have also received.
The complaint was first filed by the Election Commission, seen by some as biased in favor of the military-aligned ruling Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) both for its questionable handling of last March’s election vote count and dismissing as above board PPRP’s controversial raising of 600 million baht ($19 million) in corporate donations.
Thailand’s Constitutional Court has ruled repeatedly against political parties and politicians seen as opposed to the kingdom’s conservative interests; Future Forward has already challenged whether the court has jurisdiction over disbanding political parties.
The verdict as it stands will act to ban 15 Future Forward executives, including Thanathorn, 41, billionaire scion of the Thai Summit auto parts company, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, 40, the party’s French educated legal expert, from politics for 10 years.
It will also set Thailand’s fraught politics on an uncertain new course, one that looks to pit conservative and progressive forces in a new era of protests, despite strong military warnings that soldiers would quickly and forcefully put down any such agitation.
In a quickly released statement, the European Union (EU) said the decision to dissolve Future Forward represented a “set-back for political pluralism in Thailand” and that “political space should remain open.”
The move, some analysts already reckon, likely dooms Bangkok’s chances of negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, significantly just as regional rival Vietnam has secured a deal.
Future Forward supporters will inevitably suspect a conservative conspiracy to silence the upstart party’s strong and vocal challenge of the military’s persistent political role despite a transition through elections from junta to democratic rule.
Thanathorn’s Future Forward placed third at last March’s general election, securing 77 seats including a strong showing in the national capital, and is widely viewed as a genuinely progressive force with deep pools of support among the kingdom’s younger generations.
Read Asia Times’ exclusive interview: Thanathorn speaks inconvenient truths in Thailand
The party is also widely seen as a clear and present danger to the interests of the kingdom’s conservative elite, with bases in the military, bureaucracy and big business, which backed Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s rise both as a coup-maker and elected leader.
Prayut outpaced Thanathorn in a parliamentary vote last May on the next premier, in large part because the military appoints the 250-member Senate which has a vote on the national leader.
Conservative elements have since filed a raft of legal complaints against Future Forward, including certain pending criminal cases that still threaten to put Thanathorn in prison.
On January 21, the Constitutional Court threw out a particularly sensitive charge that claimed the party and its executives sought to undermine the monarchy. It is unclear to most analysts if King Vajiralongkorn’s palace had any hand in throwing out the charge.
Future Forward’s dissolution will, at least temporarily, stall the various measures and proposals it has advanced in parliament to push the military out of politics and guard against future democracy-suspending military coups.
Thanathorn suggested before today’s ruling that Future Forward MPs would reconstitute under a new party, apparently to be named “Order of the New Future”, while banned executives would lead and build an associated “social movement.”
Future Forward leaders hinted at what form that social movement might take in an impromptu “flash mob” demonstration in mid-December staged outside of a Bangkok shopping mall in response to a separate ruling that stripped Thanathorn’s MP status.
Piyabutr called on Future Forward supporters on Friday to gather at its Bangkok headquarters in a show of protest force against the ruling.
“If those in power think this will starve the fire of its oxygen, let me insist that they are wrong,” Piyabutr said in an address at the party’s headquarters reported by local media. “This will spread like wildfire … This is not the end, but only a beginning.”
Thanathorn had said earlier in media interviews that he would take to the streets if his party was dissolved on dubious legal grounds. More recently, he said he would not lead or fund protests, but that it was possible his party’s anti-military supporters could organize organically.
Prayut and his PPRP won power at last March’s election mainly on a promise to maintain political and social stability, the same rationale he cited to justify his 2014 coup amid months of debilitating and violent anti-government street protests.
After today’s court ruling, one that many both domestically and abroad will interpret as yet another fateful step backwards for Thai democracy, that stability is now again very much in doubt.
[Reporting from Bangkok]