Move Forward, Pita down but not out
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Move Forward, Pita down but not out

With a court sentence that handed Move Forward Party (MFP) MP Pita Limjaroenrat a suspended jail term for his role in a flash mob in 2019, the power games between the old powers and the left-leaning party have intensified to another level.

In its Feb 5 verdict, the court found Mr Pita and key political figures, including Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, former leader of the now-disbanded Future Forward Party and head of the Progressive Movement, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, secretary-general of the movement, as well as Pannika Wanich, the spokeswoman, guilty of organising a flash mob on the skywalk near the train station at Pathumwan intersection and within 150 metres of Sa Pathum Villa. The flash mob, the judge said, affected train services, preventing people from using a public place.

Also facing a suspended jail term in the latest verdict are Pairattachote Chantarakajon, a former FFP election candidate, Nattha Mahatthana, Thanawat Wongchai and Parit Chiwarak.

As the charter prohibits those with jail terms from becoming premier, some legal experts like Jade Donavanik jumped to the conclusion that the sentence strips Mr Pita of his PM candidacy for the MFP. But others argue Mr Pita still has a chance to appeal.

Undeniably, the latest development epitomises a fierce attempt by the old powers to contain, if not eliminate, the left-leaning party -- the most popular political party that scooped more than 14 million votes in the May 14 election. Even though it failed to form a government, its popularity remains unflagging -- and it is touted to perform even better in the next election, as suggested by several opinion polls. Mr Pita has been named the poll favourite of all time.

Mr Pita, currently chief advisor to the MFP, survived his iTV shareholding case on Jan 17. But his triumph did not last long, as the following week, the charter court slapped a tough verdict on the MFP's policy of amending Section 112, the lese majeste law.

The court interpreted the party's move to amend this draconian law as "subverting" the monarchy. The verdict, which was a surprise to most political observers and legal experts, paves the way for the MFP's opponents to seek the party's dissolution, and they wasted no time in whipping the party hard.

If the MFP is dissolved, Mr Pita and the other MFP executives would face the same fate as Mr Thanathorn -- a 10-year ban from politics -- while other MFP members would have to find a new party within 60 days.

If that were not bad enough, the charter court's Jan 31 verdict also placed a group of 44 MFP members -- who in 2021 signed a bill to amend Section 112 -- in trouble as their support for the move led some to question their ethics.

If found guilty, the 44 MPs -- including Mr Pita and several new political stars who are tipped to join the new executive branch of the MFP like Sirikanya Tansakul and Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn -- would be slapped with lifetime bans from politics, in what is seen as a death sentence for politicians.

Ms Pannika has already been banned because of an old Facebook post that was seen as an insult to the high institution.

The new petition against the 44 MPs was swiftly put forward by Ruengkrai Leekitwattana. But the MPs may still be able to complete their parliamentary terms as the process could drag on for 2-3 years.

While Mr Pita and the MFP are struggling, Pheu Thai is seeking a chance to rebound.

Its de facto leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, is likely to be set free on Feb 18 as he has served one-third of his sentence, and, if so, he would definitely resume his political role.

Previously, Thaksin was given a partial pardon upon his return from self-imposed exile. But instead of staying in jail, he claimed to suffer from a serious illness or multiple ailments that have left him comfortably confined at the Police General Hospital for several months.

Thaksin's presumed jail privileges have upset the public, while Pheu Thai's shift to become a new right party, compromising with the old powers, has cost the party substantial public support. Thaksin will have a tough job trying to restore the party while beating the MFP -- its former friend turned foe.

Despite this looming problem, the MFP remains undaunted. The party, with strong aspirations for change, has a strong belief that it will bounce back even stronger with a wider support base. This happened before when it was reincarnated as the MFP after the FFP was dissolved, and it emerged as the biggest poll winner last year.

MFP supporters and sympathisers are tremendously disappointed with the MFP's fate, but they are not willing to take to the streets for fear of a political backlash -- a chance for the military to seek justification to step in as it did with the last coup in 2014.

Yet public sympathies can turn into votes when the people hit the booths, as we witnessed on May 14. The former powers must be aware of the risk of triggering a boomerang effect in cornering the MFP and disregarding its huge public support.

Meanwhile, the MFP has firmly focussed on local politics, eyeing provincial administrative organisation elections, which are set to take place early next year.

Such a strategy, known in Thai as paa lom muang -- which roughly translates as an extensive forest surrounding the city -- is a political metaphor that highlights how a change in momentum often starts from the outside.

Only time will tell if the MFP can eventually make it happen.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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