KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Thailand's Constitutional Court acquitted the country's most vocal opposition party of sedition on Tuesday, sparing it an imminent death but setting the stage for its possible dissolution over a loan the party received in an alleged breach of election laws.
The upstart Future Forward Party has been a cornerstone of Thailand's opposition bloc in Parliament since finishing a strong third in national elections last March that returned 2014 coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha to power, ostensibly ending five years of military rule.
Despite its junior role to the bloc's larger Pheu Thai Party, it has been more brazen in challenging the military's continued grip on power through its own proxy party, Palang Pracharath, and an appointed Senate.
Natthaporn Toprayoon, a lawyer and former adviser to the Ombudsman of Thailand, filed a complaint last year accusing Future Forward of seeking to overthrow the monarchy, which the constitution places beyond reproach. To make his case, Natthaporn cited the party leaders' speeches, the party's regulations and even its logo — a triangle — which he likened to the symbol of the Illuminati, a supposed secret society bent on world domination.
The party dismissed the allegations as politically motivated.
Shortly after noon in Bangkok on Tuesday, the Constitutional Court announced that the evidence proffered could not support conviction.
Calls for parties to join reform agenda
Greeting a room full of cheering supporters at party headquarters a few hours later, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit struck a tone both conciliatory and defiant, inviting the parties in power to join its reform agenda.
"We hope that if our bills [go] to the parliament, we would go beyond the opposition and the governing coalition line and work for the bills that benefit the people together," he said.
"Outside the Parliament, we will continue to campaign on the amendment of the 2017 constitution, because we believe that the Thai society as a whole needs to come sit down together and design what kind of country, what kind of Thailand, we would like to live [in] together."
Many Thais blame the political powers the military gave itself in the constitution it drafted while in power for tipping last year's election in its favor.
Heading into the verdict, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst and lecturer at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, said he expected Future Forward to survive the sedition charge given how thin the case appeared.
The Constitutional Court, already bruised by its controversial handling of election complaints, would have been reluctant to dissolve the party on such flimsy grounds, he added, or to be seen dragging the monarchy into politics.
But Thitinan said it was too soon for Future Forward to breathe easy, suspecting the sedition charge to be a mere "decoy" for a loan case against the party the Constitutional Court is due to decide on next, though no date has been set.
Thanathorn, an auto parts billionaire, extended his young party a hefty line of credit to see it through last year's campaign season, allegedly breaking laws on lending limits and funding sources in the process.
Future Forward denies wrongdoing, and a pair of Election Commission subcommittees appeared to agree, according to local news reports citing leaked commission records. Responding to the leaks, the Election Commission said the subcommittees' recommendations to drop the case were not binding and defended its decision to pursue the charge.
"If the decision has been made to dissolve Future Forward because it represents a clear and present danger to the Prayut government ... they will have to look for a case. And the loan case, I think they could fudge it easier than the Illuminati," Thitinan said.
'Case was more technical'
Thammasat University political science professor Prajak Kongkirati agreed that the government was more likely to convict and dissolve Future Forward over the loans. He said the case was more "technical," echoing the court's conviction of Thanathorn in November for owning shares in a media company during the election campaign, costing him his seat in Parliament. Thanathorn denied the charge.
With the party and its leaders still facing some 20 lawsuits between them, Future Forward remains squarely fixed in the government's crosshairs.
More than any other party in the opposition bloc, Thitinan said, "Future Forward has been calling the shots. [It] has been taking the government and the military to task without fear, and that's why they are on the chopping block."
Government challenged by Future Forward party
The party has taken the lead in challenging the government's defense budget and in calling for an end to military conscription. Prajak said the party's collective vote against an emergency decree in October to transfer two army units to the Royal Palace was another case in point.
"It's unthinkable," he said. "No political analysts or observers [thought] that any party would dare to do that, but finally Future Forward did it. So, clearly they commit to what they [said] during the election campaign, that they want to change Thai society, they want to ... reform the army, reduce the power of the army. And that is something that the army and Prayut could not tolerate."
At party headquarters, Thanathorn sounded hopeful that Future Forward would survive its coming court battles, as well. But the party has been preparing for its potential demise regardless, and with good reason. Thailand's courts have dissolved three opposition parties since 2007.
Future Forward announced plans weeks ago to set up a proxy party its lawmakers and supporters could jump to if and when it is dissolved.
Prajak and Thitinan said the ruling coalition would likely manage to poach a few Future Forward lawmakers if that happens and bolster its razor thin majority in the House of Representatives. But they warned that it could also prove a springboard for more and larger protests demanding that the government step down.
A pair of anti-government rallies in Bangkok drew several thousand people in late December and early January.