Avoiding the third rail
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Avoiding the third rail

Move Forward Party softens demand for amending the lese majeste law

Fighting for rights: A young Move Forward Party member participates in a protest at the Ratchaprasong intersection.
Fighting for rights: A young Move Forward Party member participates in a protest at the Ratchaprasong intersection.

The Move Forward Party (MFP) has declared amending the ultra-sensitive lese majeste law will not take precedence in its election campaign, a "watered down" stand that could see the party easing into membership of the next government.

The MFP has been the most, if not the only, party advocating for change to Section 112 of the Criminal Code or the lese majeste law.

The party has been steadfast in its push after its predecessor, the now-dissolved Future Forward Party (FFP), persistently called for reform of the monarchy.

The FFP, and now the MFP, found a following of young, liberal-minded groups largely credited with handing the FFP its resounding victory in the 2019 general election.

Despite having contested the national poll for the first time, the centre-leftist FFP pulled off a stunning performance, capturing 81 of 500 MP seats in the previous election.

After FFP was ordered disbanded by the Constitutional Court on Feb 21, 2020 over an illegal loan extended by party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, it was reborn into the MFP helmed by Pita Limjaroenrat.

The MFP inherited the FFP stand and on Oct 15, 2022, unveiled its first policy agenda including a call for amending Section 112. The MFP argued the law needs amending after hundreds of people were charged with defaming the monarchy.

Damaging policy

The party has reiterated that any attempt to improve the lese majeste law would not run against the constitution or be detrimental to the monarch's status as head of the state.

At the same time, the amendment call has been damaging for the MFP. Various parties have distanced themselves from the move with some vowing to fight for the section to stay intact and rejecting any prospect of forming a coalition government with the MFP.

The MFP has stood its ground at the expense of possibly being ditched by the main opposition Pheu Thai Party if the latter wins enough House seats to lead formation of the next government and was looking for a potential coalition partner.

This is despite the fact that Pheu Thai, which has set for itself the ambitious target of scoring a landslide win in the next poll, and the MFP are supposedly the closest allies in the opposition. However, the parties are known to be undercutting each other in their quest for the same pool of anti-coup voters who oppose Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The MFP, under Mr Pita's leadership, is being tested on how keen it is to keep its Section 112 stand. Signs have emerged the party may sidestep the issue temporarily for the sake of improving its chances of joining the next government, if the Pheu Thai was to lead it.

The MFP has made it clear it will not be part of a government with either or both the Palang Pracharath Party and the United Thai Nation Party in it, on account of the parties being products of the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order, which led the coup.

Analysts have predicted it will be an uphill battle for the MFP to outdo the FFP's success in the election tentatively set for May 7.

The dual-ballot election system, as opposed to the single-ballot method of the previous poll, could substantially reduce MFP's share of list MPs as there will no longer be list MP seats, calculated in proportion to each party's constituency vote, to be gained in the same way as the last election.

The analysts said the MFP might win some 30-40 constituency seats, plus around 18 list MPs. The grand total would be a significant drop from the 81 House seats the party bagged at the previous election.

Change could cost votes

Chaithawat Tulathon, the MFP secretary-general, insisted the Section 112 amendment remains part of the party's campaign manifesto.

However, it admits the issue has been quiet. "Our supporters know well where we stand," he said.

The party's would-be candidates preferred to raise non-political issues at rallies. The MFP has more than 100 policies in store and candidates will choose what matters they want to promote in their constituencies.

"There's more than one specific reason why people vote for a party at the polls," Mr Chaithawat said.

Some supporters might not agree with changing Section 112. But since it is part of the party's election manifesto, the MFP intends to do its best to pursue the issue if it is given the chance.

The MFP secretary-general said he recognised the push for the Section 112 amendment being played out in public could cost the party its votes. However, the party feels an obligation to stop it, as faulty administration of the law can lead to deep social division. "Our party can't pretend as if nothing happened," he added.

'Not the main goal'

Amornrat Chokpramitkul, an MFP list MP and party executive, said the MFP has shown the public how committed it is to changing Section 112.

The party has tried to have a bill amending the section adopted by parliament for deliberation although it was put on a backburner amid doubts over whether it is constitutional. The party would try to revive the bill in the next government.

The Section 112 proposal is packaged under security laws, some of which the party is also demanding parliament rewrite. Other laws on the party's amendment radar include the Computer Act which critics say leads to unfair prosecutions.

Ms Amornrat said the party chooses where best to speak about the Section 112 amendment on the campaign. The ideal venue is university campuses.

"But we don't make it the party's main campaign goal," the MP said.

She added: "The question has to do with whether people will vote for us if we stick to our call for (Section 112 amendment). The result will tell."

If the MFP won the election with 100-200 MP seats and lead the government's formation, potential coalition partners would have to decide whether to give the amendment issue serious consideration.

Ms Amornrat said Section 112 was grossly problematic, both in terms of content and enforcement. She believes the jail term of 3-15 years imposed by the courts was too heavy and should be lowered to a maximum one year.

The law also says anyone can act as damaged party filing a complaint against lese majeste offenders. She said this should be corrected to specify the complainant should be either the Royal Household Bureau or its representative.

Rangsiman Rome, an MFP list MP, denied the party has abandoned the Section 112 policy. However, the party felt a more urgent need to address pressing problems concerning the economy which would form the MFP's flagship campaign policy.

The party wanted to remove Section 112 from its current status as a security law so as to "defang" it. Security laws typically warrant serious punishments.

The MFP encouraged dialogue on the amendment matter. "If we keep on avoiding it, we're only kicking the problem down the road," he said.

Softened demand

Stithorn Thananithichot, director of the Office of Innovation for Democracy at the King Prajadhipok's Institute, said the MFP has apparently softened its demand for a Section 112 amendment.

This, among other perceived changes in its stance, is believed to be what drove the wedge between Mr Pita and FFP co-founder Piyabutr Saengkanokkul. The two recently argued in public with Mr Piyabutr, a law academic, questioning Mr Pita's leadership and the party's direction.

Mr Stithorn said Mr Pita thought the amendment push "extreme". If adopted as a campaign policy, the party would be in danger of being dissolved. He added the push would also alienate MFP from other parties and render it unfit as a suitor in the government's formation.

Mr Stithorn added it made better sense for the MFP to concentrate on economic issues in canvassing for votes as they are closer to people's hearts.

Yutthaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, said the MFP is aware that calls to amend Section 112 would hit its popularity.

Barking up the wrong tree

Meanwhile, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Pheu Thai's chief adviser on public participation and innovation and head of the "Pheu Thai Family", has been criticised for bemoaning what she observed was an unprecedented rise in lese majeste law-related prosecutions.

On his Facebook page, political commentator, Jitakorn "Pu" Busaba, referred to a statement by Dr Warong Dechgitvigrom, leader of the Thai Pakdee Party, who said Ms Paetongtarn has made clear she does not support acts which undermine the monarchy and discussed the rise in cases related to lese majeste law violations.

She also agreed the law should spell out who are the damaged parties who can lodge complaints in Section 112 cases.

Mr Jitakorn said there have been many more prosecutions related to lese majeste because more people are breaking the law than in the past.

The offenders were misled by a certain political element into thinking they were free to do what they wanted in the name of freedom of expression, even if it tramples on the law, he added.

Instead of defending the sanctity of the law which offers protection against defamation, Ms Paetongtarn regards it as a flaw, Mr Jitakorn said.

"Suppose there are many more rape cases, can we honestly say the law is the root cause of such an increase in prosecutions?" he said.

Mr Jitakorn indicated Ms Paetongtarn's comment may well be a marketing ploy to capture MFP supporters at the election. However, he doubts she will succeed.

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