Pro-democracy Future Forward Party faces verdict on dissolution in Thailand

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit talks to reporters after the court ruled that key figures of the party were not guilty of opposing the monarchy, on Jan 21, 2020.
Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit talks to reporters after the court ruled that key figures of the party were not guilty of opposing the monarchy, on Jan 21, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand's second-largest opposition party faces possible dissolution on Friday (Feb 21) after repeatedly attacking the country's military-backed government for resisting democratic change.

The Constitutional Court will rule on an Election Commission petition that Future Forward Party should be disbanded for violating party financing rules. The party was spared dissolution last month after being acquitted of trying to oust the monarchy, which sits at the summit of power in Thailand.

Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has rejected the financing charge and a slew of other legal cases as an attempt to cow critics of the government.

Thailand's royalist establishment has disbanded multiple pro-democracy parties over the past two decades, leading to a cycle of protests and political destabilisation that hampered the economy.

"The break up of the party would anger much of the young urban electorate," said Mr Paul Chambers, a politics expert at Naresuan University's College of Asean Community Studies in northern Thailand.

Future Forward is less than two years old but surged in Thailand's disputed general election in March 2019 - which followed almost five years of military rule - and became the third-largest party in Parliament.

Mr Thanathorn, a 41-year-old former business tycoon, attracted younger voters by tapping social media to popularise a reformist agenda that includes rewriting the military-backed Constitution and breaking up oligopolies.

He has criticised Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's ruling coalition for failing to heal divisions and being unresponsive to people's needs.

LOANS

The election agency claims that 191.2 million baht (S$8.5 million) of loans from Mr Thanathorn to Future Forward broke financing rules. He has already been banned from Parliament for breaching media shareholding regulations.

Mr Thanathorn has denied the various allegations against him and the party. In an interview, he said the process behind the financing case raises the question of whether it's driven by political motives.

 

A party is already being set up in preparation for Future Forward's dissolution, Mr Thanathorn said, but declined to give more details. "If the party is disbanded, the majority of our lawmakers will stick with the ideology and move to our new home together," he said.

Executives from Future Forward are trying to avoid taking responsibility for their actions by attempting to discredit the justice system, said Ms Thipanan Sirichana, spokesman for Palang Pracharath, the biggest member of the ruling coalition.

"The urgency with which the case has come to court and the fact there is no public trial point to the party getting disbanded," said Associate Professor Punchada Sirivunnabood, a politics expert at Mahidol University near Bangkok.

Mr Prayut, 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.

 
 

It's possible the judges on Friday could decide to spare Future Forward but ban its leaders instead, said Ms Jade Donavanik, chairman of the Faculty of Law at the College of Asian Scholars in Thailand.

Mr Thanathorn said Future Forward's ideology would survive a dissolution ruling, but signalled that a break up of the party could be a flashpoint for demonstrations.

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

"When people can't stand it anymore, protest might be the only thing left to do, though nobody wants to have to resort to that," Mr Thanathorn said.