Move Forward faces dissolution threat over royal insult law

Move Forward faces dissolution threat over royal insult law

FILE PHOTO: Activist lawyer Theerayuth Suwankaesorn in 2018 (Bangkok Post photo)
FILE PHOTO: Activist lawyer Theerayuth Suwankaesorn in 2018 (Bangkok Post photo)

An activist lawyer filed a complaint against Move Forward, the party that won last week’s general election, over its vow to amend the Thailand’s royal defamation law, the latest sign that the process of forming a new government could get protracted.

Eight days after Move Forward led pro-democracy groups in a historic victory in the May 14 election, lawyer Theerayuth Suwankaesorn submitted his complaint to the Election Commission.

He urged the agency to seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court on whether Move Forward’s call to amend the lese majeste or the royal insult law, which punishes criticisms against the king and other members of the royal family, undermines the monarchy.

“The party’s plan could erode, damage, or undermine the key national institution,” Mr Theerayuth — who previously filed a complaint against the leaders of Future Forward, the party that was a predecessor to Move Forward — told reporters on Monday. A ruling against the party could result in its dissolution, he said.

The complaint, which has not been formally accepted by the Election Commission, comes hours before Move Forward’s leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, and the heads of seven other parties are scheduled to sign an agreement to push ahead with efforts to form a government following the May 14 vote.

Move Forward’s pledge to push for amendments to the lese majeste law, also known as Article 112, has emerged as a key dividing line between different political parties as it tries to cobble together a governing majority with a coalition of eight parties that won 313 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives.

While pro-democracy parties won the election, they face built-in obstacles as the constitution — approved following a military coup in 2014 — allows the unelected 250-member Senate to vote alongside the lower house to pick a new leader. That means Mr Pita’s coalition still falls short of the 376 votes he needs in parliament to become prime minister without counting on Senate support.

Mr Pita’s bid to take the top job has faced opposition from many members of the Senate, stacked with allies of the pro-military establishment of caretaker Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and other conservative parties.

The Bhumjaithai Party, which finished third with 70 seats, already ruled out support for Mr Pita as prime minister, saying it won’t back a candidate from a party planning to amend Article 112. The conservative Democrat Party has not begun a discussion on its stance on Pita’s bid to become prime minister but it disagrees with amending the law against royal insults, party spokesman Ramate Rattanachaweng said Monday. 

Under the law, the Election Commission has 60 days after the vote to release official election results and certify 95% of the lower house seats. The first session of the new parliament must then take place within 15 days. That pushes the timeline to late July. 

Move Forward’s secretary-general, Chaithawat Tulathon, said over the weekend that he was confident the party could win over some senators, adding that an agreement to be signed by the parties in a briefing scheduled at 4.30pm local time on Monday will sway members of the Senate to vote for Pita.

The push to directly change laws affecting the monarchy breaks a longstanding taboo in Thailand, where in years past even the suggestion of disloyalty to the palace has been grounds for the military to stage a coup, leading to successive bouts of deadly street protests that have held back Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy. 

While there are different views within Mr Pita’s coalition, Move Forward’s plan to amend the law isn’t a deal breaker, deputy party leader Sirikanya Tansakul told local media over the weekend. Support for the party’s plan to amend Article 112 won’t be a criteria for joining its coalition, and Move Forward will keep its word to propose the amendment for discussion in parliament, she said.

Earlier this month, another lawyer lodged a complaint with the Election Commission, alleging that Mr Pita had violated election rules by holding shares in a defunct media company. Mr Pita has said he’s not worried about the allegation, which could see him disqualified as a member of parliament, as the shares are part of an estate that he manages and he doesn’t directly own them.

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