BANGKOK - Thailand's Constitutional Court on Friday (Feb 21) 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 at 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 today's court decision banned another 11 MPs from politics for 10 years. Mr Thanathorn is amongst those banned.
The party's remaining MPs have 60 days to seek membership in other parties before their MP status expires.
Future Forward MP Pita Limjaroenrat said on Friday 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 on Friday.
Mr Thanathorn, a 41-year-old billionaire and scion of Thailand's biggest autopart manufacturer, issued a series of loans worth 191 million baht (S$8.6 million) to his party last year.
The loan is unprecedented as political parties in Thailand are typically funded by donations from key members and supporters.
Mr Thanathorn said he lent the money instead of funding the party himself to downplay his tycoon image. The party has since paid him back some of the loan amount.
There are no laws specifically forbidding party leaders, members, or supporters from giving out loans to political parties. However the election laws cap donations from individuals to 10 million baht each.
The judges on Friday described the loans as "irregular", and said that while there was no law prohibiting such loans, the party's actions in receiving them meant it was allowing its 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 pro-military 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 a sedition charge over his alleged involvement in an anti-junta protest in 2015 and a case against him for owning shares in the media, for which he was disqualified as an MP in November.
Analysts said the multiple cases against Future Forward demonstrated the political threat posed by the party to the ruling coalition.
According to Dr Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based political scientist and army expert, 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- are seen as too progressive," he said.
Dr Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science professor at Sukhothai Thammathirat University said although Thailand's opposition would be weakened by the dissolution of a key party, Friday's decision will not greatly affect the upcoming no confidence vote against six top government officials, including Mr Prayut.
The remaining 64 MPs from Future Forward can still debate and vote on the motion as independent lawmakers, while the government coalition has been enjoying a comfortable majority in the Lower House since late last year, with 264 seats against the opposition's 235.
"The opposition did not aim to win the vote. But its 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 called the cases against the party "politically motivated," and said he will continue being active in social movements by engaging in public talks and anti-government protests.
"This is not the time to cry. This is the time to get back up," he said after Friday's court ruling.
In mid-December last year, thousands gathered in central Bangkok to show support for Mr Thanathorn and his party, while voicing dissatisfaction with the military-backed government which has been in power since July.
On Friday, #SaveFutureForward was Thailand's top trending hashtag on Twitter, with over one million tweets.
Dr Yuttaporn however said large-scale demonstrations to protest Friday's decision were unlikely.
"The frustration among party supporters and those against the government would certainly grow, but I don't think it will result in a big-scale demonstration. That would take time," the academic said.