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Thai judiciary on trial as it weighs scrapping pro-democracy party

Critics complain courts are biased in favor of ultraconservatives

BANGKOK -- Thailand's politically influential Constitutional Court will soon display its power once again as it considers the fate of the Future Forward Party, a new political grouping that has given a voice to millions of young voters at odds with the pro-military government.

The nine-member bench is scheduled to take up two FFP cases on Jan. 21, which could see the party dissolved barely a year after its impressive debut. In the general election last March that ended nearly five years of military rule, the FFP won 81 seats, becoming the third-largest party in parliament.

The political temperature in Thailand has risen since the court agreed to hear the cases last year, prompting speculation in progressive political circles that the FFP will meet the same end as earlier pro-democracy parties that were abolished amid protests from supporters.

Those rulings fueled anger among millions of disenfranchised voters, with critics accusing the courts of applying double standards and staging "judicial coups." The decisions also triggered deep political divisions that have lasted more than a decade.

The atmosphere of defiance in the face of flawed justice was palpable at a mini-marathon held on Sunday in Bangkok. The "Run Against Dictatorship" event attracted thousands of young FFP supporters. "The FFP dissolution will inflame their passions against the system," said Nuttaa Mahattana, one of the coordinators of the 6 km run held to demand the end to the Prayuth regime. "They are enraged at the way FFP is being treated by the authorities," she said.

The FFP cases stem from a complaint about the 191 million baht ($6.3 million) it received from its charismatic leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, before the March elections. The party is also accused of ties to the Illuminati, a fictitious secret society viewed in ultraroyalist circles as a threat to the Thai monarchy.

Runners warm up as they attend a "Run Against Dictatorship" event at a public park in Bangkok on Jan. 12.   © Reuters

Thanathorn, a rising star in the opposition and heir to an auto parts manufacturing empire, has already been sanctioned by the Constitutional Court.  In November it stripped him of his seat in parliament for failing to disclose shareholdings in an obscure media organization.

That ruling prompted an outcry that echoes earlier complaints: that the courts dish out harsh judgments against pro-democracy parties but show leniency toward ultraroyalists and ultraconservatives. Kovit Wongsurawat, a Thai political scientist, asked on twitter why the Constitutional Court had accepted a petition concerning 32 other parliamentarians who also held shares in media companies, but allowed them to retain their seats.

Global human rights campaigners have also taken to task Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who remained in power even after the junta he headed following a May 2014 military coup stepped aside.

"Following [last year's] election, arbitrary legal actions and military intimidation against the opposition Future Forward Party and its leaders added to concerns about the government's commitment to the democratic process," Human Rights Watch said in its annual "World Report 2020" published Wednesday.

And as he awaits his day in court, Thanathorn voices a concern that his supporters share. "I have been hearing different views from different sources about these two cases; I don't know how the court will rule," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "But I have been mentally prepared since day one, since we decided to start this new political party. I knew this [dissolution] was a possibility."

Recent history bears out those fears. "Thailand leads the world with the number of political parties that have been dissolved by the courts -- around 100 since 1998," said Henning Glasser, a German constitutional scholar on the law faculty of Bangkok's Thammasat University.

The vast majority of cases, Glasser said, involve small parties that have been abolished over formalities such as membership numbers or reporting issues.

"In a handful of cases, major political parties have been dissolved on grounds of violations of constitutional core values -- Future Forward would fall into this category as the first political party in this category not belonging to the Thaksin camp."

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit speaks to his supporters as he leaves after reporting to a Bangkok police station to hear charges filed against him on Jan. 10.    © Reuters

Thai and overseas legal scholars have weighed in on the impact of politically divisive court rulings following the 2006 coup, noting that the Thai judiciary is not seen as independent but as part of a conservative establishment that sees its role as "disciplining democracy" and protecting ultraroyalist interests.

The 2006 putsch overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Subsequently, the courts dissolved Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai in 2007 and decapitated its successor, the People's Power Party, in 2008, forcing Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to quit for appearing on a cooking show.

In the wake of these decisions, critics have seized on what they see as favoritism toward the anti-democratic, ultraconservative camp. The Democrat Party -- whose name belies its ultraconservative leanings -- was spared dissolution despite what critics said were violations similar to those that brought the parties of the Thaksin camp to an untimely end.

But criticism of the Constitutional Court has become risky. Laws introduced by Prayuth's military government "limit criticism of the court, in addition to [maintaining] strong penalties for contempt of court," said one legal scholar who asked not to be named.

But some of those subject to the harsh rulings continue to speak out. "A system has been developed just to destroy political parties that are against coup-makers and the elite," said Chaturon Chaisang, a veteran politician who was acting leader of Thai Rak Thai when it was dissolved. "It is collective punishment that is disproportionate and unfair, and ends up weakening the political party system," he said.

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