Thailand’s constitutional court has what must be unique powers to decide the fate of political parties – and the shape of national politics. It exercised its powers again last week. The latest party to threaten military-backed authoritarian rule there no longer exists
Not long after Thailand’s national elections last year, a young and rich political leader disclosed to a public gathering that he had made a very big loan to the party he had founded. He thought he was being open – transparent, in the current jargon.
Sadly, he was betraying his own naivete.
Thailand has very tough electoral laws, with what must surely be uniquely harsh penalties. And the game of politics is played very hard: anyone who makes a mistake – an infringement, an error of judgment – will be punished.
The political player involved is Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a 41-year-old auto-parts tycoon, and the political organisation was the Future Forward Party (or Phak Anokhot Mai).
Future Forward, a pro-democracy party that was highly critical of the military, was formed late in 2018. Last March, it contested the country’s first elections since the 2014 coup. Its performance was surprising and impressive. It gained 6.3 million votes and won more than 80 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives. It was the third largest party in Parliament anf the second biggest in the opposition ranks.
But references to Future Forward are now in the past tense.
The Constitutional Court last week dissolved the party and banned its executive members from politics for 10 years. Thanathorn and his fellow party leaders face the prospect of criminal action and imprisonment.
The offence? Making, and accepting, a loan bigger than the individual donation limit of Baht 10 million (about $A500,000).
The court held that Thanathorn’s loan of Baht 191 million (about $A9 million) was a disguised donation, an attempt to get around the donation limit. The law does not specifically ban loans but the court held the funding was under the heading of “other benefits” that are subject to the donation limit.
Bangkok Post reported both the party and legal academics as saying the real intent of the laws that limit was to stop them using ill-gotten funds, such as the proceeds of robberies, drugs, or human-trafficking.
The court, however, held that the laws were meant to prevent anyone with a financial advantage from influencing or controlling a party.
Variations of the electoral law were written in 2017 by the post-coup military regime. A central aim of the coup was to obliterate the so-called Thaksin regime, the continuing family influence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was ousted by a coup in 2006. The laws were shaped with Thaksin in mind – or anyone else who might challenge the country’s military/bureaucratic establishment.
This is not the first time the Constitutional Court has invoked the country’s party-dissolution laws.
In 2007, it wiped out Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party. The following year, it dissolved TRT’s successor, the People’s Power Party. And last year, it disbanded the Thai Raksa Chart Party, an offshoot of the third Thaksin-related party, Pheu Thai.
Future Forward’s fate looked uncertain, at the very least, last December when the Election Commission decided to take up the loans case and ask the court to rule. The commission has organisational, policing and prosecutorial roles. The current membership was decided in 2018 by the old military junta, after a long process of winnowing candidates.
The present government, although formed after an election, has the same retired general, Prayut Chan-o-cha, as prime minister and is effectively an extension of the military government.
Future Forward thought it had some solid legal arguments. A key one was that a party is a “juristic person” – a legal entity through which a group of people might be treated as an individual. Juristic persons are thus entitled to operate under the rule that everything that is not prohibited is allowed. Loans to political parties are not prohibited.
There is, however, another rule. It applies to State organisations and is meant to make sure they stick to their defined roles.
It says for public organisations what is not explicitly allowed is forbidden.
The court chose the second interpretation. It decided a political party is a public organisation.
Under electoral laws, former Future Forward MPs have 60 days from the ruling to join another party or they cease to be MPs. There are no independents allowed in the Lower House.
Future Forward had said previously a new party would be set up but nothing is so far known about it. Future Forward itself has been rebranded as a “movement” that will campaign for its electoral democracy and military reform agenda outside of Parliament.
The ruling is a setback for democratic development in Thailand. That is the necessary effect of the harsh penalties. To criticise Thanathorn for his naivete is not to blame the victim. It is to say, however, that he and his colleagues should have been more aware of the legal traps that lay ahead of them.
The Constitutional Court’s history had shown them that the law will be used.
The big question now is how the people who supported Future Forward – those who shared the antipathy to military/authoritarian government – will react. Anger, disillusionment, rejection of politics? Or a new resolve to continue the struggle?
The critical social media reaction suggests the fight will go on – especially if young Thai people are at all like their counterparts elsewhere and are questioning the way previous generations have run the country.
Cameron Douglas is an Australian business executive who visits Bangkok frequently