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Thailand’s most radical party braces for ban, eyes ‘reincarnation’

FILE - Move Forward party leader Chaithawat Tulathon, right, flanked by its former leader Pita Limjaroenrat, talks to reporters during a news conference at parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 31, 2024.
FILE - Move Forward party leader Chaithawat Tulathon, right, flanked by its former leader Pita Limjaroenrat, talks to reporters during a news conference at parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 31, 2024.

Thailand’s most popular political party, Move Forward, is facing the familiar threat of dissolution by court order, but senior members say plans are already in place for a swift comeback if they are disbanded, refusing to let their reform movement die.

MFP secured a plurality in Thailand’s May 2023 elections with 14 million votes and 151 seats, ending nine years of military-dominated government.

The party did it with a radical slate of reforms for equitable governance — to cut the military from power, break up an economic monopoly and amend the royal defamation law, known as lèse-majesté, which criminalizes criticism of the powerful monarchy.

Yet the party’s candidate for prime minister, Pita Limjaroenrat, was blocked from forming a government by the appointed Senate of ultraconservatives allied to the generals who seized power in a coup nearly a decade earlier.

Forced into the opposition, MFP has since faced an obstacle course of legal challenges brought by rivals determined to kill its reform agenda.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court is expected within weeks to decide whether the centerpiece of MFP’s agenda — a proposed amendment of lèse-majesté — is tantamount to subversion.

The court dissolved MFP’s previous incarnation, Future Forward, in 2020, triggering vigorous street protests by pro-democracy activists.

A repeat of that ruling potentially sets a precedent for any future review of the law, which carries penalties of up to 15 years in prison and has been cited in the prosecution of at least 260 people in the past four years.

"We’ve seen party dissolution being used as one of the tools against parties that are opposite from the establishment institution of Thailand," MFP spokesperson Parit Wacharasindhu told VOA.

FILE - Supporters of the Move Forward party gather at Democracy Monument during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, July 19, 2023.
FILE - Supporters of the Move Forward party gather at Democracy Monument during a protest in Bangkok, Thailand, July 19, 2023.

"It’s not normal for any democratic country to have this kind of party dissolution but … if it were to happen, it highlights why there’s a need for a party like Move Forward Party to exist in Thai politics," he said.

If banned, MFP will have to rebrand under a new name and work quickly to keep its lawmakers from being poached by the coalition parties led by Pheu Thai — Thailand’s previously dominant electoral force, which now holds the premiership through property tycoon Srettha Thavisin.

It will also most likely have to replace Pita, leader Chaithawat Tulathon and several other front-line figures who could be banned from politics for 10 years if the party is ordered to dissolve.

Parit, 31, is widely tipped to emerge as the next leader with a strong speaking style and connection with the public.

"The party has plans in place for all scenarios," he said, without confirming any possible future role.

An MFP lawmaker, who also faces a ban from politics as a possible result of the imminent ruling, summed up the limbo of political life in a country where courts routinely eliminate talented new politicians and parties as feeling similar to "knowing your friend is really sick and knowing he can go any day."

"I’ve put in so much in this political career and it could just be the end of it just like that," the lawmaker told VOA, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of political reprisals.

MFP is set to present its final argument on May 3, and the head of Thailand’s nine-member constitutional court, Nakarin Mektrairat, has publicly called it "impossible" to prejudge the bench’s decision.

But political observers say the dissolution is a virtually done deal as the establishment seeks to politically suffocate Thailand’s most radical movement of the last two decades.

Powerful royal legacy

Thailand’s monarchy is extremely powerful, and the royal defamation law protects it from criticism, with sentences of up to 15 years per conviction.

Dozens of young pro-democracy activists have been jailed in the last few years under the law.

MFP leaders have been touring the country, saying the mere fact of a looming court decision signals the rot within Thailand’s current political system.

"I’m not sure if those who have the power to dissolve us have asked themselves what they gain by doing it," Pita said before a party meeting April 6.

"Sure, it may weaken us in the short term, but it may turbocharge us into the next election … whatever the name of the party may be."

Analysts say banning the party is futile given two factors: millions of young people joining the electorate and the looming term limit of Thailand’s 250-member militarily appointed Senate, which has been instrumental in blocking MFP’s progress.

"It makes no difference," Prinya Thaewanarumitkul, law professor at Thammasat University, told VOA. "The coalition government will get slightly stronger [without an opposition]. But when it comes to the next election, there will be four million new voters. Without the appointed Senate, it’s highly likely that the MFP’s next version will be the government."

But MFP’s "next reincarnation" may have to be politically expedient, softening calls for reform of the royal defamation law to reach power, he added.

As MFP awaits its legal fate, party leaders say they are focusing on their work as the opposition, especially challenging the government’s efforts to draft a new constitution to reflect the changing political realities.

Meanwhile, the Pheu Thai-led government is newly confident with billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s late-February release from prison. Thaksin, Pheu Thai’s longtime patron, has toured parts of the country and routinely hosted the great and the good of Thai politics at his Bangkok home, where he is serving out a house-arrest sentence for corruption.

So long as the kingdom’s old political allegiances continue to crumble and MFP’s call for sweeping social, political and economic reforms continue to resonate with a substantial part of Thailand’s electorate, it may mean the country’s progressive movement, whatever its name may be, emerges stronger in the long-term.

"No one is distracted by the legal struggle, no one is less energetic," Parit told VOA. "We remain as committed as ever in terms of pushing ahead for change …whether by submitting draft laws to the parliament, contesting local elections or expanding party membership."