Thailand's Constitutional Court yesterday ruled to dissolve Future Forward, the country's second biggest opposition party, and ban its executives from politics for 10 years over loans from party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
The move comes just days before a no-confidence motion in the ruling coalition is due to be debated in Parliament, and is seen as an attempt to weaken the opposition.
"Under a 'Thai-style democracy', a party dissolution is another form of a military coup without the use of force," tweeted Dr Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist at Thammasat University.
The third best performer in the March general election last year, Future Forward surprised many by scooping up 81 seats despite none of its candidates having run for office before. Some of these Members of Parliament have since left the party or vacated their seats.
The party is now left with 64 MPs after the latest court decision banned 11 more MPs from politics for 10 years. Mr Thanathorn is among those barred. The party's remaining MPs have 60 days to seek membership in other parties before their MP status expires.
MP Pita Limjaroenrat, 38, said yesterday that a new party will be formed under his leadership, with further details to be revealed in a week's time. Party officials vowed to continue challenging the pro-military government.
"They think they can stop us. They are wrong. This is not the end. It's only the beginning," Future Forward secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul told a press briefing yesterday.
Mr Thanathorn, a 41-year-old billionaire and scion of Thailand's biggest car-parts manufacturer, issued loans worth 191 million baht (S$8.5 million) to his party last year. He said he lent the money instead of funding the party himself to downplay his tycoon image.
There are no laws forbidding individuals from giving loans to political parties. However the election laws cap donations from individuals to 10 million baht each.
The judges yesterday described the loans as "irregular", and said that while there was no law against such loans, receiving them meant the party was allowing financiers to influence and exploit the party.
Popular among the younger generation, upstart party Future Forward is known for its anti-military and progressive stance. Its dissolution strengthens the military-backed ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former junta leader who took power in a 2014 coup.
Mr Prayut won his second term as prime minister, thanks to the electoral success of the Palang Pracharath Party that nominated him and the rubber-stamp Senate that voted him in.
There have been more than two dozen cases against Mr Thanathorn and his party since its inception in 2018, including one against him for owning shares in the media, for which he was disqualified as an MP in November.
Analysts said the cases demonstrated the political threat posed by the party to the ruling coalition.
Dr Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based political scientist, said the party was an anomaly in Thai politics because it arose as a mostly young movement opposed to military dictatorship. "The protests led by Thanathorn have awakened Thailand's military and elite to a force they never anticipated. The group was a principal threat to the government," he added.
The party also challenged the status quo, namely the privileges and interests of the establishment, Dr Prajak told The Straits Times. "Their policy platform - army reform, radical decentralisation, elimination of big business monopolies - is seen as too progressive," he said.
Yesterday's decision will not greatly affect the upcoming no-confidence vote - scheduled for next week - against six top government officials, including Mr Prayut.
Dr Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat University, said the remaining 64 Future Forward MPs can still debate and vote as independent lawmakers. The government coalition also has a comfortable majority in the Lower House, with 264 seats against the opposition's 235.
"The opposition... strategy is to spark rifts within the government coalition. Questions will be raised if certain ministers do not receive as many votes as expected," he said.
Mr Thanathorn has said he will continue with social activities like public talks and street protests.
"This is not the time to cry. This is the time to get back up," he said yesterday.
#SaveFutureForward was Thailand's top trending hashtag on Twitter yesterday, with more than one million tweets.