Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, billionaire leader of opposition Future Forward Party, speaks to the press as he arrives to face his first hearing over disputed media shares at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok on Oct. 18. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)
Thailand is facing another political crisis after its Election Commission recommended that the progressive Future Forward Party, which is widely popular with young voters, be dissolved.
The commission ruled on Dec. 11 that a loan of 191 million baht (US$6.3 million) to the party from founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a businessman turned politician, broke an electoral law.
The case will be forwarded to the Constitutional Court, which could dissolve the party and force its lawmakers out of parliament.
Thanathorn, an auto parts billionaire, loaned the sum to the then newly formed party in January to allow it to campaign ahead of a general election held in March.
His party, whose members are predominantly young Thais from all walks of life, went on to gain more than six million votes, finishing third among the dozens of parties vying for parliamentary seats.
“Future Forward has been an irritant to Thailand’s conservative establishment, in whose favor the courts have consistently ruled. The party is disliked by officialdom not only for its anti-military stance but also because of its strong popularity,” notes Khaosod English, an online newspaper in Thailand.
“The coalition government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha currently holds a shaky majority in parliament, and the expulsion of Future Forward Party members would strengthen its position.”
Late last month Thanathorn, 40, was disqualified as a member of parliament by the Constitutional Court over having once owned shares in a defunct media company, which the EC said violated an election law.
Numerous pro-government MPs who have been revealed to own shares in media companies have faced no such consequences.
Thailand’s courts have long been accused of being politically biased against anti-establishment parties.
Several parties set up by ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications billionaire turned politician who has been in self-imposed exile abroad for a decade, were dissolved over minor infractions.
Thailand’s most electorally popular premier ever, Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006. A democratically elected government led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was likewise overthrown in 2014.
It is widely believed that because of its electoral success and anti-establishment stance Future Forward is now facing a similar prospect of crippling judicial decisions.
Warning of backlash
Future Forward has been seeking to redraw Thailand’s political landscape by rolling back the influence of the powerful military in politics. It also wants to have the constitution, which was drafted by the army after its 2014 coup, amended to make it more democratic.
Its political stance has earned the party and its charismatic leader plenty of enemies in the ranks of the establishment, including the top brass.
Thanathorn, perhaps anticipating that his party could soon be dissolved, has been warning of a potential popular backlash if politically biased judicial decisions continue to be passed against pro-democratic politicians.
“Nobody knows what could happen when people lose faith in the parliamentary system, where there is no hope left, where there is no possibility to gain power peacefully,” Thanathorn recently told foreign journalists in English at a media event in Bangkok.
“The establishment, the junta, they seem certain that they could contain [mass protests]. But many think otherwise. Many [people] I talked to are not convinced. I think this is a very dangerous gamble.”
Several prominent observers have voiced similar sentiments.
“The regime doesn’t realize that Future Forward is not just another Thai party,” Andrew MacGregor Marshall, a Scottish journalist who has been a vocal critic of the Thai establishment, said in a Facebook post. “It is a movement of people who want a democratic Thailand. Attacking the party will just make this movement stronger.”
In 2010, the last time large crowds of people calling for their democratic rights to be respected took to the streets of Bangkok during raucous months-long protests, the Thai army began firing at them.
Scores of unarmed protesters were killed, many of them shot by army snipers. No military personnel have been charged over these deaths.