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Thailand's Reformists Brace for Dissolution Decision

FILE - Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat gestures before first discussion in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, May 17, 2023.
FILE - Move Forward Party Pita Limjaroenrat gestures before first discussion in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, May 17, 2023.

Thailand's Election Commission is asking the country's Constitutional Court to dissolve the main opposition Move Forward Party, citing the party's campaign promises last year to amend a strict law that prohibits criticism of the country's monarchy.

The Thai monarchy is central to society and is enshrined in the country's constitution, with the king enthroned in a "position of revered worship."

Thailand's Move Forward Party won the most seats in last year's general elections in part on pledges to amend the country's lèse-majesté law, a move the Election Commission argues was an attempt to overthrow the country's monarchy.

"The Election Commission has considered the results of the study and analyzed the decision of the Constitutional Court. It was unanimously decided to submit a petition to the Constitutional Court to order the dissolution of the Kaew Klai Party," the commission said in a statement.

Article 92 of Thailand's Political Parties Act states that if a court finds a political party guilty of seeking to overthrow the Thai monarchy, the electoral commission can gather evidence and petitions to present to the Constitutional Court to consider dissolving the party. According to the law, the party's lawmakers could also be banned from politics for 10 years if the court finds the party guilty.

Parit Wacharasindhu, spokesperson for the Move Forward Party, said they were innocent.

"We have no intention to overthrow the democratic system with the king as the head of state. We will prove our innocence at the Constitutional Court," he told local media.

Backed by millions of young voters last May, the Move Forward Party won the most seats in the country's general elections, including 32 out of 33 constituencies in the Thai capital of Bangkok.

But after the elections, the party was blocked from leading the government by Thailand's military-appointed Senate when pro-royalists refused to endorse the party over its stance to amend the royal defamation law.

Members of the Move Forward Party declined to comment further when later contacted by VOA. The party has argued that its campaign to change Thailand's strict law was aimed at preventing misuse of the law and strengthening the country's constitutional monarchy.

Thailand's lèse-majesté law, or Article 112 of its Criminal Code, prohibits criticism of the monarchy, and those who violate it are punished with lengthy jail sentences.

According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights organization, at least 263 people faced charges under Thailand's royal defamation law from July 18, 2020, through January 2024. In January, a 30-year-old Thai man was given a record sentence of 50 years in prison for breaking the law.

The potential dissolution and charges against the Move Forward Party show they are viewed as a substantial threat to Thailand's pro-royalist elite, some experts say.

"The party will likely be dissolved, because conservative elites view Move Forward as an existential threat to the constitutional monarchy," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington who focuses on Southeast Asia politics and security.

"The party leadership has been preparing for this; after all it is exactly what happened to Future Forward. They will quickly re-register it," he told VOA.

The Move Forward Party's predecessor, the Future Forward Party, was controversially dissolved in 2020 after Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled the party had been receiving illegal donations.

Its executives were also banned from politics for 10 years, decisions that sparked Thailand's 2020 and 2021 protests when hundreds of thousands of youth demonstrators took to the streets in Bangkok calling for government and monarchy reform.

"The real problem is that the charismatic and widely known leadership will likely be red-carded and banned from politics for 10 years," Abuza said of the Move Forward Party.

"This would be the second generation of leaders banned. That leaves the new party in a much weaker position when by-elections are held. There is also a real concern that voters, while supportive and sympathetic, will grow frustrated and elect politicians who can represent their interests on a daily basis," he added.

Pita Limjaroenrat, a former candidate for prime minister, is hugely popular with his Move Forward supporters. But as well as facing a decade-long ban from politics should his party dissolve, he has also faced several other charges in recent months.

Although he survived a threat of political disqualification in January over allegations of having shares in a media company, he and seven others were sentenced by a Thai court to four months in jail, suspended for two years, over a flash mob rally in 2019.

VOA attempted to reach Pita for comment on the possible dissolution of the Move Forward Party but has yet to receive a reply.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said any dissolution will only spark a "rebirth" for the party.

"[It's] no surprise. It's only reflecting the same old political game against the progressive party. If the party is dissolved, it's not the end for Move Forward Party, as we see with the case of the Future Forward Party. The conservative move against Move Forward will only re-energize the rebirth of the party," he told VOA.