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A stab to the heart of Thai democracy

Fledgling democracy has taken another blow with the decision to disband a popular opposition party

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Benjamin Freeman, Bangkok

Updated: February 24, 2020 01:22 AM GMT
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A stab to the heart of Thai democracy

Pro-democracy supporters light candles and show three-fingered Hunger Games salutes at Bangkok's Thammasat University a day after the Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve the progressive opposition Future Forward Party. (Photo: AFP)

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If any further proof was needed that Thailand remains a dictatorship in the guise of a parliamentary quasi-democracy, the country’s Constitutional Court has delivered it.

The court ruled on Feb. 21 that the opposition Future Forward Party, which won more than six million votes in semi-free elections held last March, broke an opaque electoral law by accepting a loan from its founder, charismatic young business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

The loan was necessary, the party argued, because it had no way of raising funds after the junta then in charge had forbidden any political fundraising and campaigning. 

The court’s judges, who were appointed by that same junta (which ousted a democratically elected government in 2014 and then rewrote the constitution at will), proceeded to disband Thailand’s second-largest opposition party with 76 members in a 500-seat parliament.

The court also banned 16 of the party’s senior executives, including 41-year-old Thanathorn, from politics for 10 years.

The decision, though shocking in its unfairness, surprised no one. Thailand’s high courts have long been politicized, often interpreting laws in creative ways that benefit the country’s conservative, military-allied elite.

In this case, because accepting loans is not technically illegal for political parties, the judges ruled that the interest rate of 2 percent set by Thanathorn on a loan of 191 million baht (US$6 million) to his party was too low. Thus, they argued, it was not a loan but a donation, which are capped at 10 million baht. Any sum beyond that is a violation of electoral law.

That legal reasoning is dubious at best. You can be forgiven for suspecting that the court’s decision had been a forgone conclusion and its judges simply looked for a way to justify it.

“The campaign financing rules are so ambiguous that it would have been impossible [for Future Forward] to know whether the loan contravened them,” The New York Times has pointed out. “Other political parties have taken out loans without any legal ramifications.”

That state of affairs has hardly been an accident. Vaguely worded laws have long been employed by Thailand’s courts to penalize pro-democracy voices and dissolve political parties whose policies and ideological leanings aren’t in line with those of the ruling elite.

Over the years the Constitutional Court has disbanded eight opposition parties. It even invalidated the outcomes of two previous elections that would have swept anti-establishment parties to power. The court has invariably done so on the flimsiest of grounds.

Observers and rights activists have described this strategy as a form of “lawfare” or “judicial harassment.” A veneer of legality is employed to cripple pro-democracy forces that seek to give a voice to the disenfranchised masses, particularly around the impoverished countryside.

“The decision by the Constitutional Court to dissolve the Future Forward Party illustrates how the authorities use judicial processes to intimidate, harass and target political opposition,” Nicholas Bequelin, regional director of the rights group Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“Thai authorities must reverse the dissolution decision and restore genuine rights to freedom of expression and association in the country.”

Young voters want democratic change 

Future Forward has proved highly popular with young voters who want to see democratic change in Thailand at long last after several decades of stop-and-starts. The democratic rights of all the voters who have cast their ballots for the party have now been violated.    

By dissolving the party, which still has more than two dozen legal cases pending against it and its members, the military-allied ruling class has sought to rid itself of a pesky threat to the status quo that it wants to preserve seemingly at all cost.

Yet the decision may well yet backfire. Both the United States and the European Union have raised concerns about the disbandment of Future Forward. Whether they will follow up with sanctions against the regime, which is headed by the ex-army general who led the coup against a democratically elected government in 2014, remains to be seen.

What isn’t in any doubt is that Thailand’s long-cultivated self-image as a fledgling democracy has taken another blow.

In private Thailand’s elites like to congratulate themselves on what they see as the superiority of their nation over its neighbors. Economically, Thailand is indeed well ahead of Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar. Politically speaking, however, it has been stuck in the same mire of undemocratic illiberality.

As in those other countries where long-suffering locals languish under the boots of strongmen with big guns, in Thailand, too, the army and its political allies can act with complete impunity, aided by a judicial system with no political independence.

As its name suggests, Future Forward had forward-looking policy proposals that, if implemented, would have benefited all disenfranchised Thais in one way or another. The party also called for a reform of the country’s powerful military so as to reduce its pernicious meddling in politics.

The military-backed government has proposed no such policies — apart from an ill-defined promise to turn Thailand into a high-income nation in 20 years.

After nearly six years in charge, the coup makers who now rule through a thin veneer of democratic legitimacy have little to show for their rule. Corruption is worse than ever in recent memory, Thailand remains one of the world’s most unequal countries, and the economy has long been stagnating.

Given a chance, not many Thais would want this government to continue for a single day more. Yet, as the Constitutional Court’s latest decision has proved, they have no choice in the matter.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News. 

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