The Latest on Southeast Asia: February 15, 2024

Thailand’s conservative establishment has dealt another blow to the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP), which has faced numerous legal and administrative hurdles since winning the most votes in the May 2023 national elections. The Constitutional Court on January 31 ruled that MFP had violated the constitution by campaigning to reform Thailand’s strict lèse majesté law, finding that the party’s platform was a threat to the monarchy’s constitutionally protected role in society. Though it did not dissolve MFP outright, the ruling opens the door for opponents to file cases to disband the party under Article 92 of the Political Parties Act. After the ruling, Move Forward removed its lése majesté reform proposals from its official website.

MFP’s strong showing in the May elections surprised the political establishment, which quickly rallied to prevent it from taking power. First, MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s bid to form a government alongside Pheu Thai and several smaller opposition parties was stymied by the military-appointed Senate, which denied him the necessary votes. Several senators cited the lèse majesté reform proposals as the chief reason for their opposition. Afterward, Pheu Thai crossed the aisle and formed a coalition with those parties backed by the military, provoking accusations that it had been acting in bad faith all along. The Senate threw its support behind this new coalition despite the conservative establishment’s decades-long animosity to Pheu Thai and its leader Thaksin Shinawatra. The progressive threat from Move Forward has apparently overridden all previous political differences. As a result, Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin was elected prime minister.

A day after Srettha’s selection, Pita was suspended from Parliament following a complaint by the Election Commission that he was ineligible for office due to having inherited shares in a defunct media firm. The Constitutional Court voided that decision on January 24, clearing the way for his return to the House of Representatives. But now the entire MFP faces the risk of dissolution.

Opponents have already filed several petitions against MFP with the Elections Commission and National Anti-Corruption Commission. The latter has received at least 44 complaints against individual MFP politicians which could result in lifetime bans from politics. The complaints label their efforts to reform the lèse majesté law as a serious breach of ethics designed to overthrow Thailand’s constitutional monarchy. On February 5, Pita, along with other political figures, were handed suspended four-month prison sentences due to their involvement in an unsanctioned 2019 rally against former prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Pita will appeal, but if he is unsuccessful he will again be disqualified from Parliament. 

Thai voters have seen this drama before. MFP’s predecessor, the Future Forward Party, was dissolved and its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit banned from politics after a surprisingly successful showing in the 2019 elections. That sparked a youth protest movement that, though quashed, helped drive MFP’s eventual success. Now the establishment is poised to repeat the same mistakes, fueling further discontent and potential political unrest at the moment that it seeks to project an image of democratic reemergence after a decade of military rule.

Gregory B. Poling is a senior fellow and director for the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Japhet Quitzon is a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.

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Gregory B. Poling
Senior Fellow and Director, Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative