Deja vu as charter court weighs MFP ban
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Deja vu as charter court weighs MFP ban


The late PM Samak Sundaravej shows his cooking skills during a TV show in Prachuap Khiri Khan on March 9, 2008. Six months later, the Constitutional Court ruled that he had to resign for hosting the show and receiving a token honorarium for it. (Photo: Chaiwat Sardyaem)
The late PM Samak Sundaravej shows his cooking skills during a TV show in Prachuap Khiri Khan on March 9, 2008. Six months later, the Constitutional Court ruled that he had to resign for hosting the show and receiving a token honorarium for it. (Photo: Chaiwat Sardyaem)

It is déjà vu in Thai politics this month as Thailand's biggest elected political party and its leader face Constitutional Court verdicts that could lead to a familiar dissolution and ban. At issue is the political future of Pita Limjaroenrat and the fate of the Move Forward Party (MFP), which he led to a stunning victory at the election last May. However the verdicts come out, they might be perceived by pundits as decided by the political winds of the day.

Past verdicts by the Constitutional Court have elicited doubts among the public. There are several notable trends about this particular court, which was set up after 1997 to settle all constitution-related matters. First, the court's decisions have fundamentally reshaped the political environment in an assertive and interventionist fashion. Second, these decisions invariably went against political parties and elected representatives that were deemed a threat to the conservative establishment.

Third, pro-establishment parties correspondingly were never found guilty of similar charges. Finally, most of the judges who have served on this bench were recruited from the periods associated with the twin military coups in September 2006 and May 2014. Accordingly, it is difficult to deny the accusation that the Constitutional Court is politicised, a player in Thai politics.

A simple internet search would show that the big parties that were disbanded with their elected politicians disqualified from running for office for years were aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, who until recently had been viewed as a challenge to the status quo. These parties were Thai Rak Thai in May 2007, Palang Prachachon (People's Power) in December 2008, and Thai Raksa Chart in March 2019.

Despite repeated dissolutions, these parties were still able to regroup under Pheu Thai, winning the election in July 2011 and continuing to the present as leader of the coalition government. Nevertheless, dismantling political parties and banning their members for 5-10 years weakened party inner-working and undermined the development of institutions that represent the people. These judicial manoeuvres, together with military coups, have strengthened the hands of the conservative establishment at the expense of strengthening democratisation in Thailand.

By the March 2019 election, the Future Forward Party (FFP) became the new threat, not for capturing the hearts and minds of the rural masses like the Thaksin-aligned parties but for tapping into disenchantments of younger generations who felt that their future was being squandered by endless street protests, military coups and court verdicts. To reclaim and reset political directions, the FFP called for the reform of traditional institutions, such as the military and monarchy, and a new constitution for a progressive and modern political order.

Unsurprisingly, the Constitutional Court, in coordination with the Election Commission, duly dissolved the FFP in February 2020 after it shot up from nowhere to the third largest in the March 2019 poll, with 80 seats out of 500. In turn, FFP executives were banned from running for office for ten years. The charge was that the party had received a loan from its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, in contravention of the political parties' act. This kind of outcome not only weakened the political party system but also kept out a whole new generation of political talents from trying to steer the country forward.

On the other hand, when parties that were on the side of the conservative establishment were similarly accused, such as the Democrat Party and Palang Pracharat Party, they were let off. The Democrats faced an election fraud charge in 2006-07 similar to Thai Rak Thai but were acquitted. Palang Pracharat controversially received a multimillion baht donation from an unsavoury Chinese businessman in violation of the charter but the case somehow was never fully prosecuted.

As Mr Pita and the MFP face judgement day on Jan 24 and Jan 31, respectively, the political headwinds appear not to be blowing as hard against them after they were marginalised and outmanoeuvred from potentially leading a government as the largest-winning party to head the opposition. The charge against Mr Pita that he owns a minuscule stake in a defunct media company would be laughable in other countries. Yet he could be banned from politics for years. After all, the Constitutional Court ruled in September 2008 that then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej had to resign for having hosted a cooking show on TV after receiving a token honorarium for it.

The MFP's charge is more far-reaching. The party's potential dissolution hinges on its election campaign pledge to amend Section 112, otherwise known as the lese majeste law. The charge, filed by a lawyer who worked for a former controversial monk and leader of the pro-coup street protests under the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in 2013-14, demands that the party stop such a campaign, not that it be disbanded. Yet, it will be up to the court's interpretation as to the nature of the charge.

If the MFP is not allowed to come up with an election campaign platform it sees fit to serve the electorate, then questions may arise whether the Thai people are the paramount source of political power and legitimacy in this country. If sovereignty really belongs to the Thai people, as the constitutions of 1997, 2007 and 2017 stipulate front and centre, then political parties should be able to espouse any mix of policy proposals they want because the electorate will have the final say.

Dissolving the MFP would be akin to FFP's earlier ban. Another successor party will come up, and its popular appeal may grow, as the MFP's did after it followed the FFP. Getting rid of the MFP would incur a high cost because the move would likely be perceived as politically motivated. The MFP's young voter base may agitate in protest, but probably not as widespread as in 2020. Instead, their anger and frustration would accumulate and remain pent-up. If the MFP goes, Thailand's democratic development would suffer as more young and new talent who could run the country would be sidelined again.

In view of the limited charge against the MFP and its less threatening role in the opposition rather than as government, it would be surprising if the biggest vote winner is axed. Mr Pita is similarly less of a threat despite his natural flamboyance, charismatic appeal, and leadership skills. If one or both are allowed to soldier on, however, their legal and constitutional harassment is expected to continue to keep them at bay.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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