AS THEY WAITED inside headquarters to hear whether Future Forward would be dissolved, supporters of the plucky opposition party queued to buy its merchandise. For those already in possession of an orange T-shirt or cap, there were bags and umbrellas, as well as mugs reading “I’m possible” and “Keep calm and love democracy”. Purchases raised money for the party. But it was precisely Future Forward’s funding methods that led the court to dissolve it later in the afternoon of February 21st. “I think the party executives have already planned for this,” confides a party supporter.
At issue was Future Forward’s acceptance of a 191m baht ($6.1m) loan from Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, an auto-parts billionaire who leads the party, ahead of last year’s parliamentary election. Electoral law caps contributions from individuals at 10m baht, but Future Forward’s leadership argued that a loan was a distinct category, not covered by this rule. The election commission, which asked the constitutional court to dissolve Future Forward in December, insisted it was simply an ill-disguised effort to flout the limit.
The court judged the loan to be illegal. It disbanded Future Forward on the grounds that it had violated a clause of the law on political parties that bars parties from receiving donations they know or suspect to be unlawful. The court also banned Mr Thanathorn and other party executives from politics for a decade. It stressed that they may not launch new parties. “I’m sorry that we cannot keep our promises. At the very least I can dare to say that in Thailand’s darkest hour, we shone a light!” lamented Mr Thanathorn to his supporters after the verdict.
There are more than two dozen cases working their way through the system involving Future Forward, its leader or other members of the party. In November the constitutional court stripped Mr Thanathorn of his parliamentary seat. It ruled that he had violated election laws which bar those with shares in media firms from running for parliament. To reach that verdict, it ignored evidence that the firm in question was defunct and that Mr Thanathorn had anyway sold his shares. Even when the firm was in business, it had produced only glossy magazines, including the in-flight publication of a discount airline—presumably not the sort of outlet legislators had in mind when they banned media moguls from dabbling in politics.
The legal onslaught against the party began after its surprisingly strong showing in the election. Founded only in 2018, it managed to come third overall and drew particular support from young people. Its platform of taming the army, decentralising government and tackling business monopolies had wide appeal. Mr Thanathorn subsequently sought the position of prime minister. But Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army commander who seized control of the country in a coup almost six years ago, retained the office with the support of pro-army parties. The army had worked hard to ensure that the election would be held under conditions that favoured its supporters. Even so, it only just managed to scrape together a parliamentary majority, helped by a last-minute rule change by the election commission. Future Forward, it seems, had rattled the generals.
More than 60 Future Forward MPs will now need to find places in other parties. They say they will do so over the next week. Mr Thanathorn has expressed confidence that none will join the government’s unwieldy coalition. Even so, the party’s demise will strengthen Mr Prayuth’s position. The sad state of the economy—growth in 2019 was the slowest for five years—has damaged his already doubtful standing. The united front between Future Forward and other opposition parties has hampered the passage of government legislation. A long delay meant that the budget was approved only this month, for example.
Thailand has a history of this sort of abuse. Since 2006 the constitutional court has invalidated two elections and dissolved eight political parties. But hitherto the targets have largely been parties tied to Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms tycoon whose government was ousted in a coup in 2006, sparking a feud between pro-Thaksin “red shirts” and pro-army, monarchist “yellow shirts” that has dominated Thai politics ever since. Future Forward’s dissolution is unlikely to prompt the sort of mass protests that rocked Thailand every time the authorities turned on Mr Thaksin. Titipol Phakdeewanich of Ubon Ratchathani University points out that many of those demonstrations involved poorer Thais from the provinces. Future Forward has not had the time to build a robust grassroots network all around the country. What is more, the party’s urban supporters may prove too cautious to take to the streets, preferring to complain on social media instead.
But that also hints at why the banning of Future Forward was such a waste. The party was neither clearly red nor yellow, and therefore offered an escape from the tortured dynamic of Thai politics. Indeed, its colour, orange, spoke of a principled third way, that could appeal to partisans of both tendencies. By banning it, the current regime in Thailand has proven once and for all that it does not simply want to restore order and break the political logjam, as often claimed, but to run the country without opposition. Mr Prayuth has already had a go at that, as a military dictator, and it did not work especially well.