Opposition leader and elite’s ‘worst nightmare’ faces Thai court

Panel of judges will decide on Wednesday whether opposition leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit broke election laws.

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Thailand's Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit faces disqualification from parliament in a court ruling that will be announced on Wednesday [Sakchai Lalit/AP Photo]

Bangkok, Thailand – Thailand‘s Constitutional Court will decide on Wednesday whether Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the charismatic leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), broke election rules by owning shares in a company while he campaigned in March’s controversial election

The election commission alleged in May that Thanathorn violated election laws by holding 675,000 shares in V-Luck Media Company, and immediately sought his disqualification.

Thanathorn has denied the charges and said he gave away his media shares before the campaign.

A panel of judges will announce their decision at 2pm (07:00 GMT) in Bangkok.

If he is found guilty, the 40-year-old could not only be disqualified as an MP, but also be banned from politics, and imprisoned for as long as 10 years. 

Ever since surging from virtually nowhere to third place in the elections, Future Forward has been under pressure from the government of former general-turned-civilian Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Now after months of grappling with the establishment, Thanathorn is at risk of disqualification and other members of the party are also facing charges. Some fear it could be the end for the young but powerful opposition party.

“Although I do not want it to happen, I believe it will be the beginning of the end for Future Forward,” said “O”, 25, a Future Forward voter and political science student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University who declined to give his full name. 

“It is unlikely that [Future Forward Party] would survive the upcoming constitutional court’s charges,” he said.

‘Logical choice’

Whatever happens, the party has said it will push on and Thanathorn insisted earlier this month the party said it would survive even if the court banned him from parliament.

He has already fought sedition charges and tackled legal complaints claiming he broke computer-crime laws.

To most Future Forward followers, Thanathorn represents the promise of democracy and an opportunity to move beyond the political instability that has haunted Thailand for decades. His commitment to removing the military from politics has also found appeal in a country prone to coups. 

“He’s the only logical choice for younger progressives who crave for a real change in Thai politics, period,” said Game, 25, an active member of FFP who preferred not to share his full name. 

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Thanathorn greets supporters as he arrived to face the first hearing over disputed media shares at the Constitutional Court in Bangkok in October [Lillian Suwarnarumpha/AFP]

“As far [back] as I could remember, most politicians would rather ingratiate with the army generals than criticise them,” he said. Thanathorn’s willingness to take on the government face-to-face was what eventually won over his vote, Game added.

As the popularity of Thanathorn and FFP grew in the months leading up to the March election, government representatives took up a cybercrime case against Thanathorn for allegedly criticising the establishment in a Facebook Live video. 

Last month those charges were finally dropped.

But authorities also decided in early April that he had contravened laws on sedition, unlawful assembly and assisting people who have committed a serious crime.

The charges date back to 2015 when a pro-democracy group demonstrated against the military government and it is unclear when a decision will be made.

Thanathorn has said repeatedly that the charges are politically motivated.

‘Establishment’s worst nightmare’

Political analysts are not surprised by what has happened after the party energised Thais by winning 6.2 million votes and 80 seats in parliament.

James Buchanan, a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong and researcher on Thai history and politics, said even if Thanathorn, a wealthy businessman, were disqualified he could still pose a threat to the establishment. 

“The goal is to remove Thanathorn from politics,” Buchanan said, adding that he doubted Thanathorn would be jailed. “Once this is achieved, there would be little incentive to push further by imprisoning him and risk a backlash from his supporters. Thanathorn is the establishment’s worst nightmare.” 

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Thanathorn’s supporters show three-finger salutes as they turned out to support him in at a police station in April [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Buchanan also noted that Future Forward could pose an even greater threat to the conservative-royalist establishment than Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecommunications and tycoon and former prime minister who now lives in exile. FFP’s supporters are mostly young and progressive, and one of the party’s goals is to end military influence.

It is a view shared by Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of Thailand’s most renowned historians. He told Al Jazeera there was a “fifty-fifty” percent chance that Thanathorn would be disqualified as an MP, but that prison remained a possibility.

“The establishment has to think seriously about whether they would be successful like in the case of Thaksin,” Charnvit said.

“If they come to the conclusion that they can get away with it, they would do it. But if not, meaning it might lead to something like in the October 1973 or the Bloody May 1992, they probably would not do it. I hope the establishment is wise enough, but you never know.” 

The 1973 student uprising triggered ferocious battles on the streets of Bangkok that left scores dead but removed the military dictatorship of anti-communist Thanom Kittikachorn, and led to a civilian government.

In the 1992 “Bloody May” protests, meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets to fight against General Suchinda Kraprayoon’s military government. A crackdown followed resulting in dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Charnvit said the establishment was more afraid than ever of Thailand’s younger generation and the effect it could have on the future of the country.

“My guess is that more trouble will come, another coup, or even a new popular uprising,” Charnvit said.

Whatever the Constitutional Court rules on Wednesday, neither Future Forward nor Thanathorn plans to give up the fight.

“The generals still rule. The struggle continues,” Thanathorn wrote on Twitter last week.”Democratization, demilitarization and decentralization is our call.” 

Source: Al Jazeera