A Thai court on Thursday blocked the leader of a new anti-junta political party from taking his seat in Parliament while it determines whether he violated election rules.
The ruling against Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is likely to increase political tensions in Thailand, where the military has seized power from elected governments twice in the past 13 years and courts regularly issue rulings that critics call biased.
The Constitutional Court accepted the case against Thanathorn on the recommendation of the state Election Commission, which accused him of breaking election law by holding shares in a media company. The court barred him from taking his seat until it renders a verdict.
Thanathorn has said he is not guilty of breaching the rule because the shares he held were transferred before he contested the election. However, the court said it was suspending him because he could be guilty as charged, which would be an “obstruction to the important work to the meetings in the House of Representatives.”
If found guilty, he could be disqualified from office and barred from politics. The court said he would be given 15 days to submit clarifications in the case against him.
Future Forward finished third in March elections and aligned itself with parties seeking to stop the ruling junta’s allies from forming a new government. Thanathorn has said his party would support a bid for power by another anti-military party, Pheu Thai, which won the most seats in the lower house. Last week, he said his party could lead a majority coalition and he was also ready to be prime minister.
The strong performance of the Future Forward Party in capturing 80 seats in the 500-member House of Representatives and its left-leaning positions, particularly its opposition to military involvement in politics, alarmed Thailand’s conservative forces, which have pushed back strongly on social media and in the courts.
Speaking at the party headquarters after the court’s decision, Thanathorn said, “This is not the time for hopelessness but it is the time to expose the evils of dictatorships. What has happened is an injustice. I want to call on everyone who still loves justice to proudly stand together and fight to restore justice to Thai society.”
Opponents claim Thanathorn is just a stalking horse for disgraced former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, since Pheu Thai is considered part of Thaksin’s political machine.
At the same time, several legal cases on various grounds have been launched against Thanathorn and fellow party members. Most notably, Thanathorn was charged with sedition a week after the polls, for allegedly “providing assistance” to a leader of anti-coup protests back in 2014.
Thanathorn’s supporters say the charges are politically motivated. The Election Commission was appointed by the ruling junta’s allies, while the Constitutional Court has a long history of ruling in favor of the country’s conservative establishment, which despises Thaksin, a billionaire populist politician who was ousted by a 2006 military coup.
The military has ruled with a heavy fist since staging another coup in 2014 against a government formed by Thaksin’s sister. It imposed new laws banning political gatherings and made active efforts to silence its critics.
The military-backed Palang Pracharath party is tipped to lead a government expected to be formed in the next few weeks and headed by the junta leader, Prayut Chan-o-cha, who staged the coup and has served as prime minister since then.
By Kaweewit Kaewjinda for The Associated Press with additional reporting by The Diplomat.