On 20 November, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that Future Forward party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit must give up his seat in parliament position for having failed to dispose of his shares in a publishing firm before standing for election last March. This decision will have far-reaching political implications, well beyond Thanathorn losing his seat in the House of Representatives.
Thanathorn had been suspended from serving as a House member since 23 May, as this case concerning his shares in a media-related firm was before the court. Since the Constitutional Court did not ban him from politics, Thanathorn can continue to lead the Future Forward Party and may soon seek somehow to regain a House seat.
However, the forty-year-old billionaire-turned-politician is likely soon to face criminal prosecution for breaking the election law. Owners of media businesses are disqualified from standing for election to public office. Anyone who lacks full qualifications to stand but nevertheless applies to contest in an election shall be deemed to have violated the election law.
Section 151 of the law stipulates that such violations are punishable by jail terms ranging from one to ten years, by fines ranging from 20,000 baht to 200,000 baht, and by the suspension of political rights for a period of twenty years. If he is found guilty under this law, Thanathorn’s political career will be for all practical purposes over.
This week’s setback will further demoralise Thanathorn’s two-year-old party, after it suffered a major setback in failing in a by-election in Nakhon Pathom on 23 October to hold a seat that it had won last March.
Thanathorn had counted on the by-election victory in the Central Plains province west of Bangkok to whip up anti-government sentiment prior to the upcoming parliamentary no-confidence motion against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha set for December.
In the meantime, thirty-two House members belonging to parties in the governing coalition and an equal number belonging to opposition parties face similar probes for allegedly owning shares in firms that include media services and publication in their scope of business operations.
Coping with “lawfare”
Also confronting the Future Forward Party, its leader Thanathorn, and some of his colleagues on the party’s executive committee, are more than twenty further cases pending in the courts. Party secretary-general Dr Piyabutr Saengkanokkul describes the situation as “lawfare” – a concerted effort on the part of the “powers-that-be” to hobble his party by means of litigation and prosecution.
One of the most serious of these cases stems from Thanathorn’s lending the party a total of 191.2 million baht to fund its campaign for the general election last March and to help cover its post-election expenditures. These loans could be deemed a violation of the political party law. That law prohibits donations or gifts from an individual to a political party of more than 10 million baht in a given year.
The Election Commission is seeking from the party documents information concerning the loans, including details of the interest rate and repayment. If there is enough evidence to prove that the loans and the use of party funds to repay them were illegal, the Election Commission will submit the case to the Elections Section of the Supreme Court. A request for a decision to dissolve the party and to ban all of its executive committee members from politics will accompany that submission.
Thanathorn disclosed the loans in a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on in the weeks preceding the March polls. His apparent intention was just to make a point about how unprepared his party was to enter the elections. He subsequently listed the loans — 161.2 million baht on 2 January 2019 and 30 million baht on 11 April 2019 — in a statement declaring his assets and liabilities submitted to the National Anti-Corruption Commission. As a member of the House, he was required to make that submission.
Thanathorn has contended that the political party law does not specifically prohibit loans to parties. Neither, he argues, are parties explicitly prohibited from borrowing to fund their operations. His opponents, however, argue that the intent of the law is to prevent wealthy people from dominating political parties with their financial clout, as former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did in the case of the Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power Parties.
The crusade to amend the 2017 Constitution
The Future Forward Party also faces the accusation in a case now before the Constitutional Court that it unconstitutionally opposed what is known in Thailand as the regime of “democracy with the king as head of state”. This accusation stems from the party’s active campaign to amend the 2017 Constitution.
The party and its allies in the opposition want to remove from the charter the temporary provision calling for the participation of members of the Thai Senate — all handpicked by the military junta in power during 2014-2019 — in the selection of prime minister during their current five-year term. In June, 249 senators joined 251 members of the House in voting for General Prayut as premier. The other candidate, Thanathorn himself, received 244 votes, all from members of the House.
In early October, Thanathorn joined several other opposition leaders in a seminar on constitutional amendment in Pattani. One of the speakers at the seminar mentioned during her speech that it would be “not unusual” to put up for discussion all sections of the 2017 Constitution — including Section 1, which states that “Thailand is one and [an] indivisible Kingdom”.
It is unclear whether any proposed change to Section 1 of the constitution would concern the indivisibility of Thailand or, alternatively, Thailand’s form of government as a kingdom. But both matters are taboo.
Thanathorn and thirteen other participants in the seminar were subsequently accused of instigating public unrest in a case filed with the police by provincial security authorities.
As things stand now the Future Forward Party needs a “Plan B”, in case a court decision dissolves the party and bans all members of its executive committee members – including Thanathorn — from politics.
Should this come to pass, the party’s eighty House members, excluding those banned from politics, will have sixty days to find a new party to join.
Without Thanathorn at the helm, and without Dr Piyabutr and several other executive crucial committee members, Future Forward’s struggle for a “new politics” of genuine liberal democracy may face early and untimely death.
Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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