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Thailand’s Bruised ‘Move Forward’ Party Vows to Make Waves From Opposition

Thailand’s Pro-Democracy Party Regroups in Opposition
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Lawmakers in Thailand’s Move Forward Party say they will be a serious parliamentary opposition force despite being blocked from leading the government and losing their party leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, to a legal charge. And they insist that the long-term “tug of war” for greater democracy is theirs to be won.

The party earned 14 million votes in a May election in a country fed up with the army-backed conservatives who ran politics and the economy since a 2014 coup.

Despite emerging as the largest party in parliament, the MFP was forced to become the opposition after the Senate, appointed by the army under a military-written constitution, blocked Pita from becoming prime minister.

Pita was suspended from parliament after being accused of breaching laws for political office holders because he owned shares in a long defunct media company.

He resigned as party leader earlier this month, joining several party figureheads on the sidelines because a court bans them from engaging in politics or other legal activity.

Pita says he will return to frontline politics if he beats the case against him - but if he is convicted he could face a jail sentence and a long ban from politics.

Party strategist Chaitawat Tulathon will be caretaker leader until Pita’s legal fate is clear.

At a party meeting September 24 to regroup and launch Chaitawat’s leadership, MFP lawmakers said their task as the opposition was to vigorously represent the millions who voted for them.

“On the one hand we have a ‘democratic’ system that’s becoming less and less democratic,” Parit Wacharasindhu, a Move Forward Party spokesperson, told VOA.

“On the other … we have a society that is becoming increasingly progressive, increasingly aware [and] demanding of democracy. So in a sense it is a tug-of-war between a regressive system and a progressive society.”

From the opposition, the party can challenge the government to rewrite the constitution which allowed the appointed senators to block the election-winning party from power, he added.

Thailand’s current prime minister is former real estate tycoon Srettha Thavisin, of the Pheu Thai Party, which campaigned on an anti-army platform.

But it suffered its worst ever poll performance and has jumped into government with a coalition that includes politicians from the last military-aligned government.

Speaking on September 22 to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, he insisted he had “the mandate of the people to strengthen democracy, institutions and values in Thailand.”

On the same day the Senate voted to make Srettha prime minster, the party’s billionaire patron, Thaksin Shinawatra, returned to Thailand from a long self-exile. He quickly had an 8-year jail sentence commuted by the king to just one year, in what experts say was a deal by the establishment to allow Thaksin back to preserve the status quo in a conservative-leaning government.

Srettha is banking on populist economic policies — including debt relief to farmers and a $275 handout to everyone over 16 years old — to refresh the party’s fortunes and establish his own agenda.

But Pheu Thai’s pivot to a conservative alliance has handed leadership of Thailand’s pro-democracy agenda to Move Forward.

“I’m dreaming of the day that we are all equal and I think MFP can take us there,” said Nannapas Chanthasit, a 19-year-old student who has just taken up party membership.

“I’ve constantly fooled myself that maybe next year it will be our time but the conservatives just keep clinging onto power.”

MFP wants to see the military out from power for good, a restructuring of an economy dominated by monopoly businesses and the amendment of the royal defamation law — which carries jail terms for insulting the monarchy.

Arnon Nampha, a leader of pro-democracy demonstrations which have rattled the establishment in recent years, was sentenced this week to four years in jail under that law, the latest of dozens of convicted activists.

Move Forward also faces the threat of court dissolution for breaching a constitutional guarantee to defend the monarchy.

Dissolution could spark protests, which could distract Srettha from his focus on the economy, experts say.

But “we can never be certain what the establishment's plan is for MFP,” said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“So far it's Pita and the party … but other members may face different charges later.

Attempts to substantially amend the constitution may also fall flat, he added, especially if Pheu Thai drags its feet to appease its conservative allies.

Move Forward can, however, boost its popularity gradually “if they perform as an opposition” by scrutinizing the government, he said.