Move Forward case reveals autocracy
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Move Forward case reveals autocracy


The Constitutional Court's announcement that it will consider the Move Forward Party's (MFP) written defence in its dissolution case on June 12 appears ominous. After several attempts to make its argument that a campaign pledge to amend the lese majeste law against royal insult is not tantamount to "overthrowing Thailand's democratic regime with the King as head of state", the party's time is up. As the biggest election winner in May 2023, the MFP's dissolution is perceived as a foregone conclusion. Such a revelation might risk Thailand being perceived as an autocratic regime based on legal manoeuvres, and power plays that do not derive from voter preferences.

The party's alleged wrongdoing was to broadly campaign to reform Thailand's traditional political institutions, particularly the military and the monarchy, including revising the law against royal criticism. A disbandment of the MFP would come with precedents that demonstrate an undemocratic pattern whereby the military and judiciary have subverted people's poll choices.

In contemporary Thai politics, the dissolution of political parties dates back nearly two decades. The most recent was in February 2020 when the MFP's precursor, the Future Forward Party, was dissolved, and its executives were banned for ten years from running for office after emerging from nowhere to take third place in the March 2019 poll. That lawfare ignited a year-long pro-democracy street protest by younger Thais who backed the party.

Yet there were other party dissolutions and long bans on elected politicians dating back to an earlier coup in September 2006 against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His wildly popular Thai Rak Thai Party, which garnered 77% of legislative seats in the February 2005 poll, was struck down in May 2007. Its successor, the Palang Prachachon (People's Power) Party, which again won an election in December 2007, was also dissolved in December 2008. Yet another Thaksin-aligned party called Thai Raksa Chart was taken down in February 2019, just days before an election took place.

Democratic institutions are weakened when winning political parties are brought down. What is perceived as lawfare is made possible by constitutional configurations after the 2006 and 2014 military takeovers that permit independent institutes like the Constitutional Court, Election Commission, and an anti-corruption body to decide on the future of those parties. Under that system, petitioners can initiate political sabotage. For the March 2019 poll, following five years of military government, petitions were filed with the Constitutional Court on poll violations, leading to Future Forward's disbandment. Future Forward's reform and modernisation agenda was readily adopted by the MFP.

Nevertheless, the transparency of this judicial process raises valid questions, as appointments to these agencies were controlled by the military and its handpicked members of the Senate.

With the Constitutional Court in cahoots with the election and anti-corruption commissions, it takes just a few like-minded petitioners to file charges of alleged violations to keep political parties that are seen as a threat to established centres of power off-balance and short-lived. When democratic institutions and elected representatives that stand for and govern on behalf of the Thai people are systematically and consistently eliminated, Thailand should be called out for being autocratic in disguise despite the appearances of a constitutional and electoral process.

Suppressing and marginalising political parties has been reinforced by stereotyping elected politicians as unscrupulous and unsavoury in a system of money politics where they buy votes to gain office and reap profit from it through corruption and graft. But this perception cannot be applied to the MFP because it comprises young political newcomers who have not been in office but who are determined to reform and modernise the country.

As the largest vote winner with 151 out of 500 representatives in last year's poll, the MFP's parliamentary forces are predominantly in their 30s and 40s and have never been in office. Poll results suggested that not only younger voters and urbanites preferred the MFP but also older Thais across the country. It should be recalled that the party won votes nationwide despite a glaring lack of patronage machinery and a traditional war chest to entice voters.

By campaigning during the election to revise Section 112, the MFP had not done anything except make an election pledge. Yet the Constitutional Court ruled unanimously in January by a 9-0 vote that even campaigning to amend the lese majeste law was the same as upending the political system. Never mind that any such amendment would have a difficult time gaining enough votes in parliament due to pro-military parties. With the Constitutional Court in the lead, the Election Commission, in a lock-step fashion, has used the overwhelming decision to request to the same court to get rid of the MFP. In the same old pattern, the party's 44 executive members are also liable for a 10-year ban. With a brand new "morality and ethics" clause in the 2017 charter, party executives, including its leader Pita Limjaroenrat, could also face a lifetime ban from running for office.

No wonder not a lot of new political talent wants to enter Thai politics. Running for office today could result in a long-term ban tomorrow. The locus of power does not reside with the Thai electorate but with the military, privileged sections of the bureaucracy and big business. They collectively call the shots in Thailand. Banning parties means disenfranchising voters. Getting rid of the MFP would rob more than 14.4 million Thais of their choice to run the country.

Unless the party miraculously survives the Constitutional Court's ruling, the MFP's demise should be seen for what it is -- an autocratic move that repeats itself time and again without a viable alternative that can carry the country forward. Thailand is stuck because the few who can impose such a power play cannot come up with a better future and win the confidence of the vast majority.

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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