Thanathorn guilty, but motive in doubt
It's official. Rising star opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been disqualified as a party-list MP.
In its ruling yesterday on the case involving the allegation that the Future Forward Party (FFP) leader had not dispensed of his shares in V-Luck Media Co when he applied to be a candidate in the March general election, the Constitutional Court appeared to lend gretaer weight to a number of irregularities and circumstances than the actual paperwork Mr Thanathorn submitted as evidence.
Prior to judgement day, due to the technical nature of the case there had been many questions, mainly centring on technicalities about the nature and "circumstances" surrounding the share transfer.
Following the verdict, it is possible that some of those questions could linger in people's minds. Among them could be what Mr Thanathorn's actual motive could have been for breaking the election law and what the implications of the ruling are on other similar cases filed against MPs from the government camp, not to mention the FFP's future. Some may continue to question the intentions of the election law.
But it is more likely that the public's reflections on the ruling will be limited due to a new regulation imposed by the court -- passed by lawmakers appointed by the former military regime whose leaders also run the current government -- that forbids "criticisms of Constitutional Court rulings in a dishonest manner or with wording deemed as rude, ironic, inciteful or malicious.
Given that the case holds political implications and offers a chance for the public to learn, it is worth delving into some big-picture questions. Due to the limitations under the court's regulation, a certain level of restraint is applied in this article.
Circumstantial evidence and hard evidence
The Election Commission (EC), which filed the case, accused Mr Thanathorn of failing to transfer his shares in the company in time prior to his application as the MP candidate on Feb 16. Mr Thanathorn insisted that the transfer took place on Jan 8, presenting the company's share transfer documents as evidence.
The accusation stemmed from the "discovery" of the company's Bor Or Jor 5 form submitted on March 21 to the Commercial Ministry's Department of Business Development (DBD). The form listed names of the company's shareholders which excluded Mr Thanathorn. The EC believed this was the formal notification of the share transfer, meaning it took place after the date of his registration for the election and thus violated the law.
Both Mr Thanathorn and a number of financial experts pointed out that the submission of the document is an annual update that all companies must submit to the DBD, and that the law does not require firms to inform the DBD every time a share transaction occurs.
The court ruled that Mr Thanathorn's claim was not credible given that the company had in the past submitted the form to the DBD much sooner following changes to its shareholder structure. The delay in Mr Thanathorn cashing a check he received for the transfer was also cited as being among the irregularities.
The court said the company could have kept the share transfer document to itself and were not official documents that were supposed to be recorded by the DBD to prove the share transfer took place. There was also no official record of the closure of the company, the court said.
What could his motive have been?
The motive for Mr Thanathorn keeping the shares until March 21 is unclear. He clearly did not benefit from it, given that the company had been inactive since late last year and stopped published its three magazines. The politician earlier claimed that it was in the process of closing down. But the court said the company could have restarted its business at any time. No evidence was presented by the EC that it did resume business, however.
Some may say this could be an administrative error. But this is a case against a successful businessman and a moderately successful politician. Why would he have let such an error take place, if it was indeed a mistake?
What is the intention of the law?
The law intends to create a level playing field among MPs since having influence over a media company is viewed as unfair competition. But again, the EC did not present evidence to prove that Mr Thanathorn used the inactive company to serve this purpose.
What does the ruling mean for the private sector?
The ruling implies that the share transfer documents were not official documents to prove the transaction took place. It remains unclear whether this will have any implications on private companies which use this type of documents for their formal share transactions as defined by the Civil and Commercial Code.
What could the implications on other cases be?
Thirty-two MPs from the government coalition camp also face similar complaints filed with the Constitutional Court over their shareholdings in companies registering "media" as part of their business field. It is a common practice for businesses to broadly specify their purposes to give them operational flexibility and allow future expansion. A former election commissioner, Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, already posed the question yesterday of whether the ruling, which specified that V-Luck Media Co could resume its business at any time, would set a precedent for these cases.
What could the political implications be?
Though he has been stripped of his MP status, Mr Thanathorn can remain as the FFP leader and run as a candidate in by-elections or local elections and serve on lower house committees. He can still be as critical as he wishes about the government and the status quo given that he has nothing more to lose politically.
Mr Somchai said the EC could still pursue criminal charges against him for running as a candidate while knowing he was not qualified. It may want to avoid this to spare itself the inevitable international criticism. Proof of the accused's motives is also important in a criminal prosecution. and, as observed, many still wonder what Mr Thanathorn's motive could have been for not transferring the shares in time.
Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed pages editor of the Bangkok Post.
Deputy Op-ed Editor
Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed editor of the Bangkok Post.