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2020/9, 22 January 2020
Thailand’s embattled Future Forward Party is not yet completely out of the woods, even after the 21 January ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court that it was “not guilty” of charges of sedition. The party still faces the more serious allegation that, in accepting 191 million baht in loans from its leader, the billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, it has unlawfully submitted itself to his financial domination.
The party has until 27 January to submit documents to defend itself against this charge, in a process in which the Constitutional Court will not call any witnesses.
The crux of the loan case is the question of whether a Thai political party is permitted to borrow money to fund its operations, and under what conditions.
Section 62 of Thailand’s 2017 law on political parties does not include loans among permitted sources of party finances. But it does state that a political party’s income shall not be used for purposes other than funding its operations. This could mean that the Future Forward Party may have violated Section 62 in two respects: accepting loans and partially repaying those with its income.
In addition, Section 66 of the same law states that no one can donate cash, contribute assets or provide other benefits amounting to more than 10 million baht per year to any political party. Thanathorn’s loans could be deemed as a violation of that section of the law.
However, it is unclear whether the party’s alleged violations and Thanathorn’s lending will lead to its dissolution and whether Thanathorn and his colleagues on the party’s executive committee will then be banned from politics. After all, Thanathorn, the lender, is not an outlaw or a foreigner. And there is no evidence to show that his money came from illegal sources.
Apparently Thanathorn did not anticipate that lending money to his cash-strapped party would be controversial, let alone a violation of any law. Indeed, he casually mentioned it in a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok last May.
Whatever its decision, the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the loans will set a legal precedent. It will have significant implications not only for the Future Forward Party, but also for several other political parties whose informal borrowing of funds has been detected.
Continuing Misfortune for Thanathorn
In the worst-case scenario, the Future Forward Party will be disbanded, and Thanathorn as well as his colleagues on the party’s executive committee will be barred from involvement in politics for several years. How will Thanathorn cope?
He will undoubtedly try to maintain an active political role – if he is not sentenced to prison for illegally exerting financial control over his party. The dissolution of the two-year-old Future Forward would, however, leave him more vulnerable as he faces other pending allegations.
Thanathorn’s effectiveness and ability to remain politically active outside of parliament will be severely undermined if he is banned from formal political participation. Most of the party’s roughly seventy remaining members of parliament are likely to join a designated but not yet named new party, should Future Forward suffer dissolution. A few of them may defect to join government parties. And all registered members of the Future Forward Party will be advised to migrate to the new party.
The uncertain future of Thanathorn and the Future Forward Party directly weakens the opposition in Thailand’s House of Representatives. At the very least, it will distract the seven opposition parties – Future Forward Party the second largest among them, after opposition leader Phuea Thai – in their efforts to topple the premiership and the cabinet of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha in the upcoming no-confidence debate.
The opposition parties now want to submit before the end of January their joint motion calling for a no-confidence debate in the House. But they have yet to agree on which cabinet members, apart from Prayut himself, to zero in on in their attack.
The debate is expected to start in February. However, the opposition parties, with altogether fewer than 240 votes in the 500-member House, will not be able to knock anyone out of her or his cabinet seat in the ensuing no-confidence vote.
Instead of voting against Prayut or his ministers, some House members from opposition parties, including those from the Future Forward Party, may seize the opportunity to endear themselves to the government side by crossing party lines to vote in support of Prayut and his ministers.
The unending misfortune of Thanathorn and his Future Forward Party will be a political windfall for Prayut.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.