Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit at the Future Forward Party's headquater on the date the Court acquitted it of anti-monarchy claim.
The Constitutional Court has acquitted the Future Forward Party (FFP) of absurd claims, probably only so that it can disband it later on more tortuous and sophisticated grounds: corruption in the form of illegal loans.
FFP supporters celebrated at their party headquarters, as the Constitutional Court unanimously ruled to acquit the party of allegations of being anti-monarchy. However, this might be the last time they can celebrate as the "Future Forward Party."
The acquittal of the FFP has surprised many people, but it was impossible for the Constitutional Court to disband it on the basis of Nattaporn Toprayoon's absurd allegations, in what became known as "the Illuminati case". The lawyer and "concerned citizen” (as the court called him) claimed that the party abused its liberty to overthrow "democracy with the monarch as head of state."
He claimed the party shared a triangular symbol with the Illuminati and said the party rulebook states a commitment to the principle of democracy and the constitution, without mentioning "with the monarch as head of state." The defendants included party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, and other party board members whom Nattaporn accused of being obsessed with Western philosophy and anti-royalist ideas.
This is one of dozens of outrageous lawsuits the FFP is facing. And their 6 million voters are angry. When the Court stripped their beloved party leader Thanathorn of his MP status, thereby kicking him out of parliament, supporters expressed their anger by gathering in the largest flash mob in the last 5-6 years.
Thai people in general are becoming more courageous about expressing themselves than before as shown by the numbers that joined the recent "Run against Dictatorship". The Court cannot risk disbanding the third largest political party in the country on outrageous claims only to provoke larger protests. To help the establishment rid itself of the FFP, it needs a more substantial claim, good enough to make the apolitical section of society feel uncomfortable about joining the anti-junta cause.
That's where the loan case comes in. The FFP has been charged with accepting a 191 million baht loan from party leader and billionaire Thanathorn. The Court has agreed to rule on the dissolution of the party based on the Election Commission's claim that it is illegal for a political party to borrow such money.
Conservatives tried to file a complaint based on the claim that it is illegal to receive a donation of more than 10 million baht from one individual. But a loan is not a donation, and other pro-junta parties have taken loans. So the Election Commission instead refined the claim to exploit a different technicality - invoking Section 72 to dissolve the party for obtaining money by illegal means rather than Section 66 which limits the amount of individual donations.
The Court will be far more comfortable ruling on a corruption claim than an anti-monarchy claim. A sharp decline in cases based on anti-monarchy allegations, including lèse majesté, shows a growing consensus among inner circles of the establishment that in the reign of King Rama X, anti-monarchy allegations can only be used as the last resort.
Still, the Constitutional Court is a powerful political actor in Thailand. In the last 15 years, it has removed 3 elected Prime Ministers, nullified 2 elections, and dissolved 6 political parties. It is more likely than ever that the FFP with its 6 million voters will be the 7th party to be disbanded by the 9 judges who have had their terms of office prolonged by the junta.
“Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” wrote Antonio Gramsci, whose thought heavily influenced the formation of the FFP. With this in mind, the party leaders have prepared for the worst. Recently, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit signalled that they have a substitute political party registered. In the event of a dissolution, all their MPs have to do is to move to the new party.
But the party will surely be weakened with the party's board members gone and possible defections of MPs during the transition. It will at least take time to recover. The party has grown so much and so rapidly that the recruitment process has been rudimentary with difficulties in identifying who can be trusted.
There is a precedent for defections. When the Court dissolved the anti-junta Thai Rak Thai Party in 2008, some of their MPs were persuaded to desert the cause and join what became a coalition partner in the Abhisit government instead of the newly registered pro-Thaksin replacement party, the People's Power Party. Then in 2010, the Court dissolved the People's Power Party, but this time their MPs moved en bloc to yet another successor party, the present Pheu Thai Party. Political parties come and go, but political ideas stick.
Meanwhile, the FFP's real hard work is to build a mass movement to increase its bargaining power. But at the same time, they have to make sure that this do not become a pretext for another military crackdown. As Thais are more ready to protest than ever, precautions have to be made to ensure that history, like the killings of 92 Red Shirts in 2010, will not repeat itself. Of course, crackdowns are more a response to anxieties among the establishment than anything else, but this makes nuance in democratic opposition more important than ever.