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Popular Thai opposition leader loses parliamentary seat

Constitutional Court rules Thanathorn violated media shareholdings law

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of Thailand's anti-military Future Forward Party, talks to pedestrians in Bangkok on Nov. 20. (Photo by Rie Ishii)

BANGKOK -- The popular leader of Thailand's Future Forward Party lost his seat in parliament on Wednesday when the Constitutional Court retroactively disqualified him from an election held in March.

The court voted 7-2 to strip 40-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of his lawmaker status for failing to sell his holdings in V-Luck Media before filing his candidacy. Thanathorn, who has assets of 5.6 billion baht ($185 million), said he sold off his shares in the company a month before running for office and had provided evidence.

The court judged that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the shares were transferred in time. Thanathorn said after the ruling: "The decision was based on assumption, not facts." 

The disqualification verdict does not prohibit Thanathorn from running as a candidate in future elections. Thanathorn's seat will be reallocated to the highest-ranked unseated member in Future Forward's party list. 

Thanathorn reiterated his intention to continue leading the party. "There is still plenty of work to do, such as amending the constitution and changing the military drafting process," he told the press after the ruling.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, center, is surrounded by his supporters as he arrives at Constitutional Court in Bangkok on Wednesday.   © AP

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights expressed disappointment in the ruling and called for an end to the judicial harassment of opposition members and human rights defenders in Thailand.

"Today's ruling is another indication that despite the holding of elections this year, Thai authorities are not ready for an open and free democracy," said Charles Santiago, Malaysian lower house member and chair of the regional human rights agency. "All signs point to a coordinated attempt to silence a party that has threatened the status quo in its pursuit of constitutional reform," he added.

Another agency member and former Indonesian MP Eva Sundari said: "It is clear that the party is being targeted because of their surprising good score in the elections and their opposition to the powerful military. By depriving the leader of the Future Forward Party of his seat, Thailand is depriving voters of their voices." 

The U.S. sent an observer to the Constitutional Court where a Belgian diplomat, representing the EU, was also present.

Thailand's election laws prohibit candidates from owning media shareholdings out of fear that such assets could lead to unfair publicity of their parties and candidacies. The Election Commission did not point out the unlawful behavior ahead of the elections, making the accusation a month after voting.

The Constitutional Court voted to accept the case one day before the first National Assembly on May 23. It also suspended Thanathorn as a member of the House of Representatives until it issued a ruling in the case, submitted by the election authority.

Thanathorn, who was the vice president of auto parts maker Thai Summit Group, founded Future Forward, now Thailand's third-largest party, in March 2018 with legal scholar Piyabutr Saengkanokkul. The party's goal of bringing Thailand a democratic constitutional monarchy like those in Britain and Japan irritated believers of Thailand's constitutional monarchy, which gives sizable political power to the king.

The party also came out strongly against military influence in Thai politics. Thailand has a history of coups, which some experts say have been used as a tool to escape political deadlocks.

Thanathorn had repeatedly insisted that if his party gained power it would prosecute all former military officers of the highest military rank who had participated in coups against civilian governments. Thailand has had more than 10 successful coups since 1932, including two since 2006. The latest one was carried out by current Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

The pledge provoked a military uproar, especially from Royal Thai Army Chief Apirat Kongsompong.

In the election, Thanathorn's party secured 80 of 500 lower house seats. Only two parties won more seats. The Pheu Thai Party, affiliated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, gained 136, the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party took 116.

Future Forward, Pheu Thai and five other parties formed a coalition with the intention of voting Thanathorn into the prime minister's office. But they could not overcome Prayuth's supporters, led by members of the Palang Pracharat Party, as well as the voting power of the Senate, whose members are appointed by the junta.

On Monday, Thanathorn filed a lawsuit with the Criminal Court against all seven members of the Election Commission.

"They failed to exercise their power to investigate the alleged media shareholding case thoroughly," Future Forward spokesperson Pannika Wanich said. "As Mr. Thanathorn has said, they rushed to submit the case to the Constitutional Court on May 15, before its subcommittee finished its probe. It raises the question of whether it was politically motivated."

On Tuesday, the poll agency said it acted in line with the constitution and denied the existence of a political agenda.

The international community has been closely watching how Thailand's government and military treat Thanathorn. In April, when Thanathorn was charged with sedition and ordered to turn himself in for questioning, diplomats from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K. and U.S. as well as EU and U.N. human rights officials accompanied him to a district police station.

Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai reacted fiercely, accusing the observers of breaching diplomatic protocol and intervening in Thailand's justice system.

Human Rights Watch touched on the Future Forward cases in its report, "To Speak Out is Dangerous," which sounds the alarm that peaceful expression has been criminalized in Thailand. The report uses the word "prosecution" to describe the cases against Future Forward and its members. "In the wake of that election," the report says, "the judicial harassment of Thanathorn intensified."

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