Thailand's inevitable political endgame
While the conviction this week of Future Forward Party (FFP) leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit seemed to be in the making ever since the Election Commission took up the charge last May, it was still astonishing when it transpired. In an all too familiar scene, the Constitutional Court ruled that a leader of yet another leading political party which has stood against military coups and the generals' role in politics is guilty of violating an election-related law, this one banning MP candidates from owning shares in a media company. As the verdict strips Mr Thanathorn of his MP status, several implications seem clear.
First, while he remains defiant, Mr Thanathorn's political horizon stretches out under dark clouds. This latest Constitutional Court conviction of a leading politician, this time somehow without a publicised breakdown of voting among the judges who are mostly holdovers from military eras after the putsches in 2006 and 2014, may lead to a criminal case against Mr Thanathorn. The FFP also faces greater scrutiny now that their party leader has been convicted.
Never mind that Mr Thanathorn has insisted with proof that he had transferred shares from V-Luck media company to his mother prior to becoming an MP candidate, nor that a host of other MPs happen to fall into the same category of media ownership. A sitting MP, in fact, comes from a household that owns a major media group. But none of them falls in Mr Thanathorn's category because they do not stand up against disguised and thickly veiled military-authoritarian rule the way the FFP leader does.
In addition, there are conspicuous cases of constitutional questions and election-related undertakings of a bunch of lawmakers and cabinet members that have been lightly prosecuted, if pursued at all, from expensive watches and dubious land ownership to criminal jail sentences. Mr Thanathorn's real wrongdoing is that he stands against the established centres of power, led by the military and its appointed organs and tentacles.
What's more, Mr Thanathorn has managed to assemble a bunch of other like-minded representatives of the Thai electorate who share the same beliefs and values. Together, their FFP managed to win big as the third-largest elected banner in parliament, with some 82 out of 500 seats, even though they had zero experience in electoral politics with zero established MPs in their fold. For some reason, more than 6.3 million Thais backed the Thanathorn-led FFP in a 35.5-million electorate. They also had the audacity to call for the abolishment of forced military conscription, the revamp of the military-era constitution of 2017, income redistribution, the promotion of smaller businesses as opposed to oligopolistic conglomerates, among other reforms of Thai economy and politics.
In the hitherto Thai socio-political system comprising the military, crown and bureaucracy, which arose out of Cold War exigencies in the second half of the last century, Mr Thanathorn and his cohorts are upstarts and heretics who not only fail to toe the line and get by, but pose a frontal challenge to the established ways and means of Thailand's power hierarchy. In this light, Mr Thanathorn's conviction is par for the course.
In earlier power plays over the past 15 years, Thaksin Shinawatra, his sister Yingluck, their clan and cronies posed a similar challenge for being so electable and popular with the vast majority of the electorate. Even though they might not have set out to go against the establishment centres of power, Thaksin and his crew inevitably became a threat to the existing power holders and brokers, who eventually got rid of them. In trying to become the new establishment, the Thaksin camp got kicked out by the old establishment, a campaign and crusade made easier by Thaksin's conflicts of interest and abuse of power.
Mr Thanathorn is a similar kind of threat from a different kind of source. He hails from a big auto-parts business family, no doubt. But his challenge is not that of new capitalist groups and populist politicians trying to capture the masses to launch a new policy paradigm around healthcare and rural microcredit, thereby sidelining and replacing old power wielders. Instead, Mr Thananthorn and the FFP want to remake Thailand and make it fit and compatible with the demands and requirements of the 21st century, starting with reforms within the military to expel soldiers from political processes. A publicly accountable and electoral Thailand with sufficient hallmarks of recognisable democracy in a constitutional monarchy is roughly the FFP's posture and position.
To be sure, Mr Thanathorn's loss of MP status is unlikely to shake up the FFP. Its MPs at the margins here and there may be poachable by the pro-military parties but the bulk of them will likely stay true to their cause. This was evident when 70 FFP MPs voted against a recent decree to transfer and bring several army units under royal security command. This steadfast and resolute stand, reasoned on a lack of public accountability, sent shockwaves through Thailand's corridors of power.
Because of their stand, the FFP now also might face a fate similar to Mr Thanathorn. Its dissolution would be the fourth in the line of anti-military parties that have faced the axe over the past 15 years. It would strengthen government numbers in parliament and leave the opposition bloc in disarray as the status of FFP MPs becomes uncertain. Perhaps the barometer to gauge what happens now to Mr Thanathorn and FFP is the level and intensity of their defiance. There could be a correlation between defiance and prosecution.
What matters at that juncture will be the growing voices and ranks of FFP supporters, many from the post-Cold War demography, reinforced by others who have grown disenchanted by the lacklustre government since the last putsch. Facing constitutional and legal manipulation and intimidation, backed by coercive measures and potential force, these supporters may well suck it up and put up to get by, as they have been doing for years now. Or they might start calling a spade a spade, when enough is enough.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.