Thailand’s Constitutional Court has banned as an MP the leader of a new and successful political party that opposes the military and the current prime minister. It could turn out to be step 1 in ending his political career.
The most effective critic of the military establishment in Thailand is a new political party called Future Forward. It is led by a 41-year-old social justice campaigner and businessman called Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his message, judging by the social media response, appeals to young people.
Future Forward, formed only in 2018, in March went into the first elections since the 2014 coup with a program that included cutting military spending (and the number of generals) and ending conscription. It came third in the poll, collecting 17.6 per cent of the vote and winning 81 out of 500 House of Representatives seats. It is now the second-biggest opposition party.
The support the party has won from younger people means that Future Forward might indeed have a future. Thanathorn already faces a number of charges brought by the military or people associated with it.
This week brought what might be step 1 in ending his political career. He was found to have breached the Thai constitution in a way that made him ineligible to register to stand in elections. He has been disqualified as an MP.
Thailand has had 20 constitutions since King Prajadhipok handed down the country’s first written charter in 1932, largely because existing constitutions are scrapped after each coup d’état and fresh ones written, reflecting the needs of the latest post-coup government. The process leaves the country open to rule-by-law, rather than rule-of-law.
The latest constitution, accepted in a referendum in 2017, is a detailed document containing 279 sections. The English-language version runs to 109 pages. It lists 18 grounds for banning people from standing for the parliament. They include: being a drug addict; being convicted of drug production or dealing; running an illegal gambling operation; being bankrupt; and owning, or holding shares in, a newspaper or mass media business.
Thanathorn owned 675,000 shares in a small magazine company called V-Luck Media.
He sold the shares to his mother but the Election Commission brought a case against him that depended on the timing of the transfer.
The critical date was February 6 this year – the date his party filed its list of candidates with the commission. Thanathorn said he sold the shares on January 8. The commission said, however, the change in shareholding was not officially reported to the Department of Business Development until March 21.
Thanathorn’s defence was that this was a mere formality, that there was no time set down for reporting share transfers. But the Constitutional Court sided with the commission and said the change in shareholding should have been reported promptly. It voted 7-2 to disqualify him.
Bangkok Post commentator Surasak Glahan said the court appeared to give greater weight to a number of irregularities and circumstances surrounding the transfer than to the paperwork Thanathorn submitted as evidence. The court found the documents had been held by the company and none of them were official documents to prove the transfer had taken place before the registration date.
Thanathorn is rich, as his family owns Thailand’s biggest motor-parts company. In an official filing, he listed his net worth as Baht 5.6 billion ($A270 million). With his history as a social democracy and anti-poverty campaigner, he is sometimes called the Billionaire Commoner.
He faces a number of legal battles. The biggest one could be a potential step 2 of the media-ownership case.
The election commission is contemplating a criminal case against Thanathorn. Under the election law, anyone found guilty of registering to be a candidate knowing that they were not qualified can face a gaol term of up to 10 years, a fine of up to Baht 200,000 (almost $A10,000) and a ban from politics for 20 years.
Bangkok Post’s Surasak said that before the court’s ruling there had been many questions involving technicalities surrounding the share transfer.
He expected public reflection on the case would be limited because of a new regulation passed by the post-coup government, whose leaders run the current government. That regulation forbids “criticisms of Constitutional Court rulings in a dishonest manner or with wording deemed as rude, ironic, inciteful or malicious”.
He did think it possible that some questions would linger in people’s minds – including what motive could Thanathorn have for breaking the law on media company shareholdings?
Cameron Douglas is an Australian businessman who visits Bangkok frequently