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Thai pro-democracy party on edge of dissolution over court cases

Constitutional Court to give January verdict in move some see as clampdown

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of Thailand's progressive Future Forward Party engages with his supporters at a sudden unauthorised rally in Bangkok on Dec. 14.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's second-largest opposition party led by millionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit will face two separate trials in the Constitutional Court that could lead to the party's disbandment.

The court on Wednesday accepted a petition from the Election Commission urging it to investigate the pro-democracy Future Forward Party. The court gave Thanathorn's party 15 days to prepare documents to challenge the petition. If found guilty, Future Forward could face an order to dissolve.

The move by the Election Commission is seen by some as another clampdown on the opposition by the pro-military government, led by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who came into power after a coup in 2014 and was reelected earlier this year.

The election authority claimed the party received money from an illegitimate source. Thanathorn, as party leader, lent more than 191.2 million baht ($6.3 million) to his own party that was formed in 2018. The Election Commission did not elaborate why it considers the source as illegal.

Future Forward secured 80 of 500 lower house seats in the general elections in March, becoming the second largest opposition party after Pheu Thai Party which won 136 seats. About 18% of overall votes went to the party. Pro-military Palang Pracharat Party won only 116 seats, but formed a ruling coalition with other mid-sized and small-sized parties.

If disbanded, members must find another party to join within 60 days, or they would lose their parliamentary seats. Its executive members will not be allowed to form a new party or become an executive of another party for 10 years.

Thanathorn has already lost his seat for violating a law that restricts media shareholding in late November.

The party's main policy promises include slashing the military budget, bringing in civilian control, and reviewing the king's role in the constitutional monarchy. Many authorities, especially the military, saw the party as a threat to their existence.

Unlike the U.K. or Japan, Thailand leaves sizable political power to the monarch, which oversees the military. In Thailand's recent history, the army had staged about a dozen coups. King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the head of the Royal Thai Armed Forces.

Future Forward is also facing another trial, which could lead to the dissolution of the party even without an inquiry. A petition filed in July by Natthaporn Toprayoon, former adviser to chairman of the Ombudsman's Office, was accepted on Thursday.

Supporters wave their hands during a flash mob organized by the progressive Future Forward Party in Bangkok on Dec. 14.   © Reuters

The petition accused Thanathorn and other party executives of violating a law that prohibits actions that undermine the constitutional monarchy. In essence, Natthaporn claims that Future Forward is linked to a so-called secret society, Illuminati, that seeks to overthrow monarchies.

The court said it would not hold an inquiry, rejecting such a request by the party, as it already saw sufficient evidence to rule on the case. The court said it would rule on this case on Jan. 21.

The most recent party dissolution order came just before the general elections in March. Thai Raksa Chart Party, which was linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was ordered to dissolve for nominating Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate. The Thai constitution states that the monarchy is above politics.

Future Forward gained support from a wide range of pro-democracy voters in the election and remains popular among them. On Dec. 14, Thanathorn initiated a flash mob in central Bangkok. The gathering attracted a few thousand supporters, and was seen as the biggest protest in years. The junta had restricted freedom of assembly while it was in power from 2014 to earlier this year.

But if Future Forward was dissolved, it may motivate voters to hit the street more often or more violently, some analysts said, pointing to the monthslong protests in Hong Kong. Indians have also rallied against Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration over the citizenship bill, which welcomes migrants from India's neighbors as long as they were not Muslims.

Analysts said the international community will be watching Future Forward's trials. Representatives from the U.S. and the European Union were present when Thanathorn received the constitutional court verdict that stripped him of his parliamentary seat.

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