Thai Court Disbands Opposition Party, Boosting Army-Backed Ruler

Siraphob Thanthong-Knight
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Thai Court Disbands Opposition Party, Boosting Army-Backed Ruler

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A court in Thailand ordered the dissolution of Future Forward, a pro-democracy opposition party that became the highest-profile critic of the nation’s military-backed government.

The Constitutional Court ruled Friday that loans of 191.2 million baht ($6 million) to the party from Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 41-year-old former tycoon, breached financing rules. He and other party leaders were banned from politics for 10 years.

The verdict may be a boon for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s ruling coalition, which is expected to expand its slim parliamentary majority by poaching some of the 76 Future Forward lawmakers that must join new parties. While Thanathorn has said he expects most to switch to a planned Future Forward replacement, even a few defections would strengthen Prayuth.

“The government seems to be preparing a team to poach these lawmakers already,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, an associate professor in politics at Mahidol University near Bangkok. “It would only need a few more seats to ensure its strength and stability.”

Demonstration

Thanathorn said in a briefing after the verdict that “our journey doesn’t end here” and “it’s time for us to stand up.” Co-founder Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, who was also banned, called for a demonstration at party headquarters to show support.

In an interview Thursday, Thanathorn said a new party has already been set up in preparation for dissolution, adding that “the majority of our lawmakers will stick with the ideology and move to our new home together.” He also signaled Future Forward’s break up could spark more demonstrations amid disgruntlement with the government.

“Protest might be the only thing left to do, though nobody wants to have to resort to that,” he said.

The Thai stock market dipped after the court ruling before recouping the losses and closing 0.3% higher. On Twitter, hash-tags expressing support for the party quickly became the most popular in the country, with over a 1 million tweets.

Future Forward was less than two years old but became the second-largest opposition party after a disputed general election in March last year. It attracted younger voters to a reformist agenda that included rewriting the military-backed constitution, breaking up oligopolies and preventing coups in a country with a long history of military takeovers.

It’s the latest to be dissolved by Thailand’s royalist establishment, which disbanded multiple pro-democracy parties over the past two decades, stoking a cycle of protests and political destabilization that has hampered the economy.

Rallies

Thousands of people rallied in December and January either in support of Future Forward, or to protest against the government. But overall political tension remains lower than during Thailand’s past episodes of bloody street unrest.

Thanathorn criticized Prayuth’s coalition for failing to heal divisions and being unresponsive to people’s needs. He rejected the string of legal cases against him and the party as an attempt to cow dissent.

Prayuth, a former army chief, seized power in a coup in 2014, led the subsequent military government and returned as premier in July under electoral rules crafted during the junta’s tenure.

In a tweet after the verdict, he asked people to respect the court’s decision.

Future Forward was spared dissolution last month after being acquitted of trying to oust the monarchy, which sits at the summit of power in Thailand.

Army Chief

The party’s savvy social media promotion of its agenda for change rattled the country’s power brokers. Last year, army chief Apirat Kongsompong attacked opposition parties, including Future Forward, for criticizing “the military as being an obstacle to democracy, when in fact we work for every Thai citizen.”

In October, some 70 lawmakers from Future Forward voted against an emergency decree passed by parliament to transfer some army units to King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s command. Their opposition stunned a nation that treats top royals as semi-divine and edicts related to them as sacrosanct.

Vajiralongkorn is head of state in Thailand’s constitutional monarchy and has repeatedly displayed his authority since taking the throne in 2016. The country has strict lese-majeste laws that criminalize insults against top members of the royal family. Future Forward said it was loyal to the monarchy.

(Updates with comment from Future Forward in fifth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Natnicha Chuwiruch.

To contact the reporter on this story: Siraphob Thanthong-Knight in Bangkok at rthanthongkn@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sunil Jagtiani at sjagtiani@bloomberg.net, Daniel Ten Kate

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