Last week, Thailand’s constitutional court dissolved the Future Forward Party, a powerful opposition group in a country that has just emerged from five years of military rule. The court also banned the party’s executives, including its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, from participating in politics for the next decade.
The verdict was not necessarily surprising: the military, the ruling Palang Pracharath Party, and Prayuth Chan-ocha—former junta leader turned civilian prime minister—wield influence over the courts. But the decision could be a spark in a powder keg of a country, a U.S. treaty ally that has already weathered decades of turmoil. There are signs that younger Thais, increasingly disdainful of national institutions and supportive of Future Forward, are reaching a breaking point.
The court ruled that Future Forward violated election laws in Thailand’s March 2019 vote, the country’s first election since a 2014 military coup. It alleged that the party illegally obtained some $6 million from its head, Thanathorn, a dynamic forty-one-year-old tycoon turned politico. (Thanathorn says the money was a loan.) The court was likely looking for any way to remove Thanathorn.
Under the ruling, Future Forward’s members of parliament, besides party executives, can remain in parliament but not as members of the dissolved party. If they scatter into other parties, they will be less powerful. Thailand’s election commission now will likely hear criminal charges against Thanathorn and other Future Forward leaders, which could land them in jail for three to five years. The timing of the ruling also hobbled an effort by opposition groups in the lower house of parliament to censure Prayuth and other ministers.
Why is Future Forward being targeted?
Future Forward, a first-time party in 2019, shockingly won eighty seats in the election, even though the vote was held under a new constitution, midwifed by the military and designed to reduce opposition power. Along with Thanathorn’s magnetism and the wavering appeal of other opposition groups, Future Forward’s push for popular reforms such as forcing the military out of politics resonated with younger Thais. They have faced high unemployment among educated young adults, and have expressed anger at years of political backsliding and the gerontocratic and intolerant armed forces. Despite tough lèse-majesté laws, young Thais have even used social media to criticize King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who has dramatically increased the monarch’s personal influence over politics.
After the election, Prayuth emerged as prime minister in part because of dubious postelection maneuvering, and in part because the new constitution stacked parliament in his favor. Still, many Thais hoped Prayuth’s political weakness and the country’s seeming return to semidemocracy could eventually elevate Thanathorn. Prayuth presides over a struggling economy, and he was widely criticized for his initial responses to the coronavirus outbreak and a mass shooting by a Thai soldier in early February.
Since the election, Future Forward has demonstrated an ability to capture popular sentiment and spark large street rallies. In a recent poll by Thailand’s respected National Institute of Development Administration, respondents said Thanathorn, not Prayuth, was most suited to serve as prime minister.
Has anything like this happened before?
Over the past two decades, Thailand’s unelected power brokers—a network around the monarchy of the military, government agencies, and the judiciary—have used dubious court rulings, and coups, to suppress certain parties. Courts derailed popular parties linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the military launched coups in 2006 and 2014.
What does the ruling mean for Thailand’s future?
Thailand appears headed toward unrest. The judiciary and Thailand’s agencies will likely dole out more punishment for Thanathorn and other Future Forward members. The government and military will crack down on other types of opposition, thwarting any return to semidemocracy.
The ruling is also likely to spark increased activism by democracy advocates both online and in the streets, as Future Forward’s leaders say they will convert the party’s energy into a social movement. But Prayuth is known for tolerating little criticism, and the commander of the army, Apirat Kongsompong, is one of its most hard-line leaders in decades. Earlier this year, Apirat compared opposition politicians and civil society leaders to communists and issued a warning that appeared to suggest the army will step in if protests gather steam.