Thailand’s MFP Remains Defiant as Crucial Court Decision Looms

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Thailand’s MFP Remains Defiant as Crucial Court Decision Looms

The popular opposition party faces dissolution over its pledge to amend the country’s severe lese-majeste law.

Thailand’s MFP Remains Defiant as Crucial Court Decision Looms

Pita Limjaroenrat, the former leader of Thailand’s Move Forward Party (MFP), addresses the media in Bangkok, Thailand, June 9, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Pita Limjaroenrat – พิธา ลิ้มเจริญรัตน์

Two days before the Constitutional Court is set to decide its fate, Thailand’s opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) remained defiant, arguing that the court has no power to dissolve it.

The popular party faces disbandment and a possible lifetime political ban on its leaders when the Court convenes tomorrow to consider a petition challenging the party’s promise to reform Article 112 of the Thai penal code – the so-called lese-majeste law.

Speaking to the press yesterday, ex-MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat said that the dissolution of the party would have far-reaching impacts. “This will affect confidence in the country, its democratic system, and political parties,” he said, according to a report by Nikkei Asia. “It should not be considered something normal.”

In early April, the Constitutional Court agreed to take on a complaint filed by the Election Commission (EC), requesting that it disband the MFP because of its campaign promise to amend Article 112, which criminalizes critical comments about the country’s monarchy.

The complaint was filed after a Constitutional Court ruling on January 31, which said that it found “reasonable evidence” that the MFP’s pledge to reform Article 112 constituted an attempt to overthrow Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. As the Bangkok Post explains, the EC “asked the court to disband the party, revoke the rights of party executives to stand for election and prohibit anyone who loses those rights from registering or serving as executives of a new party for 10 years.”

The MFP denies that this was its intention, arguing that its stance on Article 112, which government critics argue has been used to shut down legitimate scrutiny of the Thai political establishment, lies squarely within the realm of legitimate political contestation.

In laying out the party’s nine-point defense yesterday, Pita said that the MFP has taken the risky strategy of arguing that the Constitutional Court lacks the authority to dissolve the MFP, despite doing so to the party’s predecessor Future Forward in 2020.

He said that the MFP would argue that the Constitution limits the court’s authority to review the validity of laws and complaints against elected officials. As Nikkei Asia reported, Pita argued that the EC did not send warnings to the party about its lese-majeste reform pledge during the campaign leading up to the May 2023 general election, and said that the dissolution of parties was a last resort that should only undertaken in extremis. He also argued that the Constitutional Court’s January ruling should not affect the court’s upcoming deliberations, as the two cases involve different charges and penalties. “If there’s rule of law in Thailand, I’m extremely confident in our nine arguments,” Pita said.

Of course, that is a very big “if.” The recent court rulings follow in a line of decisions that have been used to prevent the emergence of any political party promising a head-on confrontation with the country’s dense concentrations of wealth and power.

In 2020, the Constitutional Court banned Future Forward for violating election laws regarding political donations. This followed a procession of court cases against parties associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006.

Writing in Nikkei Asia last month, the influential commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak argued that power in Thailand “clearly does not reside with the Thai electorate but with the military, monarchy, judiciary, and privileged sections of the bureaucracy and big business who ultimately call the shots.”

Indeed, this reality seems to suggest to many that the MFP’s dissolution is largely preordained. That the Constitutional Court has already ruled that the MFP’s reform pledge was an insurrectionary act makes it hard to see it letting the party off the hook – at least not without severe restrictions on its freedom of maneuver.

Even so, the dissolution of the MFP would have unpredictable political effects. The move would effectively nullify the votes of 14.4 million Thai voters, deepening the discontent that has fueled the popularity of the MFP. The court’s banning of Future Forward in early 2020 helped catalyze the wave of youth-dominated protests that took place throughout 2020 and 2021, before being halted by the spread of COVID-19 and the liberal application of lese-majeste charges. The protests were notable for featuring some of the most explicit, and public, criticisms of the monarchy for decades.

The growing disillusionment and radicalization of a large section of urban Thailand also contributed to the MFP’s victory at the general election of May 2023. While Future Forward came in third in the general election of 2019, winning 17.34 percent of the vote and clinching 81 seats in the House of Representatives, the MFP came first in 2023, winning 37.99 percent of the vote and 151 seats.

The MFP was only prevented from forming the government by the military-appointed Senate, which closed ranks to block the party’s path to power – another example of establishment obstruction. A coalition was eventually formed by the Pheu Thai Party and a handful of conservative and military-backed parties, with Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin as prime minister.

This obstruction, and the party’s decision to enter opposition rather than compromise its principles for a junior role in government, has only enhanced the MFP’s support. In a survey conducted in May, around 47 percent of respondents said that Pita is their preferred candidate for prime minister.

This support is unlikely to evaporate into the ether, and there is a distinct risk that the dissolution of the party will only succeed in drawing more attention to the Court’s central position in a network of institutions that routinely closes rank to thwart the emergence of any genuine democratic alternative. Should the Constitutional Court vote for dissolution, Thitinan argued in Nikkei Asia, “there would be little reason left not to call Thailand a disguised autocratic regime rather than a passable democracy.”

By thwarting Future Forward, itself the product of years of obstruction of parties associated with Thaksin, the conservative establishment only succeeded in birthing a more radical – and popular – alternative. Doing the same to Move Forward would likely intensify the dynamic of polarization and radicalization, ensuring that the cycles of conflict will continue to dominate Thai politics for the foreseeable future.