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Thai Poll Body’s Latest Move against Opposition Party Could Provoke Unrest

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2019-12-12
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Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (center), leader of Thailand’s anti-military Future Forward Party, gestures as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Bangkok, Nov. 20, 2019.
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (center), leader of Thailand’s anti-military Future Forward Party, gestures as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Bangkok, Nov. 20, 2019.
AP

This week’s recommendation by Thailand’s “independent” Election Commission that the Constitutional Court dissolve the opposition Future Forward Party will likely usher in a new round of unrest, but could backfire on the military-backed government.

The commission said it would ask the court to take such action after ruling that Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a charismatic and young billionaire who leads the party, had committed the high crime of lending it $6.3 million during the election period earlier this year.

Formed in March 2018, FFP surged in the 2019 general election. It garnered more than 6 million votes and captured nearly18 percent of the vote as well as 16 percent of parliamentary seats, making it the third largest party. FFP holds 31 constituency seats and 50 party-list seats.

FFP has emerged as an important third force in the decades-old struggle between Thailand’s military and ultra-royalist elites on one side, and the populist former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his “red shirt” supporters on the other side.

Thai elites have long used the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court to ban popular political parties.

Two parties led by Thaksin, the Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power Party, were banned in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Days ahead of the March 2019 polls, the court dissolved the opposition Thai Raksa Chart, another Thaksin-linked party, after it nominated Princess Ubolratana as its prime ministerial candidate, a move that forced a royal intervention from her brother, King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X).

There is nothing independent about the election commission. It engaged in malapportionment of seats, gerrymandering, the banning of politicians, and devising a party list formula that penalized the anti-junta opposition.

Likewise, the Constitutional Court has been an effective tool of ultra-royalist elites, refusing to follow up and investigate similar legal transgressions of the pro-military parties and political figures. It is unlikely that the Constitutional Court will not take the case.

Popular with young people

While the military was obsessed with the pro-Thaksin parties, FFP came out of nowhere and did exceptionally well in the election, winning Bangkok, home to more than 10 percent of the population.

The party has the most support from young, educated urbanites who are frustrated with the military’s grip on power and economic mismanagement. But they also found that supporting the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party was counter-productive and would result in the furtherance of military control.

Since the election, Thanathorn has been in the military’s sights. He had the temerity to challenge junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha in a June 2019 parliamentary vote to become prime minister, winning 244 votes, only seven shy of Prayuth, the incumbent who had all but stolen the election.

Even in the opposition, FFP has been giving the government, whose majority in parliament is razor thin, a hard time.

The military has been infuriated by FFP’s proposal to end conscription, as well as their call to curb military spending, which soared to $7.6 billion in 2020, despite no meaningful external threats.

FFP has called for constitutional amendments to force the military out of politics. Though left unsaid, the military viewed FFP as agents of republicanism who were determined to end the country’s monarchy, in whose name the military clings to power.

FFP ran afoul of the military by participating in an academic panel that discussed autonomy in the Malay-dominated Deep South, where over 7,000 people have been killed since 2004, as autonomy threatens the “unitary nature of the Thai state.”

Last month, the Constitutional Court stripped Thanathorn of his parliamentary seat for failing to disclose shares that he held in a now defunct media company.

There are other legal cases against Thanathorn and FFP, including one that ties it to the Illuminati. And yet without any irony, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, the chief of the Royal Thai Army, has insinuated that the FFP members are communists.

Thai government fears Hong Kong-style protests

What the governing coalition and their military and royalist backers are hoping for is that the Constitutional Court moves quickly to dissolve the second-largest opposition party, and its top leaders are banned from politics for 10 years; the MPs will then have to join other existing parties, including possibly the military’s political vehicle, the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP).

And yet, the FFP gently fading into the night seems unlikely. Banning it could indeed usher in a new wave of political unrest.

Future Forward is a broad-based movement, one that really articulates the interests of younger voters who have no interest in the military’s attempt to return Thailand to the “Prem-ocracy” of “guided democracy” in the 1990s.

This is an educated and worldly constituency that is frustrated with the country being run by elites who have consolidated wealth and power at the expense of everyone else. Since the 2006 coup, Thailand’s Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, has soared.

FFP supporters are the people most affected by the government’s passage of Chinese-modeled cyber laws.

While Thanathorn has decried the street protests between the red and yellow shirts that were used to justify the 2014 coup d’etat led by Prayuth, a photograph of Thanathorn with Joshua Wong, a leader of the Hong Kong protests, has absolutely spooked the military leadership.

The government will crack down if supporters of FFP take to the streets. Fearful of Hong Kong or even Indonesian-style public protests, the government is sure to attempt to quell the protests quickly.

But the FFP supporters are either the Thai middle class or children of them, not rural farmers. And they are media savvy.

It’s worth recalling that what forced the royal intervention following the 1991 coup d’etat, were public protests by the middle class in Bangkok, which led to more than 50 deaths, more than 3,500 arrests and the disappearances of hundreds more.

The junta’s electoral drubbing by the middle class in the capital city should be a wake-up call to the government that there are limits to how far it can push the public, or dispense draconian punishments on the opposition for crimes with which pro-government parties and supporters get away with total impunity.

Waging ‘Law-fare’

Things are not going well for the government.

A recent public opinion poll by the government’s own National Institute for Development Administration found low levels of confidence in the prime minister. Nearly 34 percent said Prayuth had performed poorly, 61.2 percent said he lacked the competence to solve the country’s problems, and 51.5 percent said he lacked transparency.

And yet, the military and ultra-royalist elites simply cannot contain themselves.

Rather than putting up with a principled opposition leader who has put forward bold reforms, some of which have broad popular support and others that do not, the government will continue to engage in “lawfare” against the opposition.

The Thai military and ultra-royalists have been willing to disenfranchise the electorate and usurp the will of the people repeatedly. But now they are doing it against multiple sectors of society, rural and urban.

That will come back to haunt them. Ultimately, what compels the government is that Future Forward actually cares about Thailand’s future.

Prayuth and the government only harken back to an idealized past. And they’ll stop at nothing to drag the country back with them.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.

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