Thai Constitutional Court Clears MFP Leader of Breaching Election Law

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Thai Constitutional Court Clears MFP Leader of Breaching Election Law

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, can rejoin Parliament – but more legal challenges loom.

Thai Constitutional Court Clears MFP Leader of Breaching Election Law

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of Thailand’s Move Forward Party (MFP), speaks to supporters in northeast Thailand, November 17, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Pita Limjaroenrat – พิธา ลิ้มเจริญรัตน์)

Pita Limjaroenrat, the former leader of Thailand’s Move Forward Party (MFP), has been found not guilty of violating the country’s election law, allowing him to be reinstated to Parliament.

In a long-anticipated ruling yesterday, the Constitutional Court ruled by eight votes to one that Pita had not broken rules banning candidates for public office from holding shares in media companies.

Pita led the MFP to a stunning victory at last May’s general election, winning 151 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. But the MFP was subsequently blocked from forming a government with the Pheu Thai Party and a handful of smaller parties, due to the opposition of the military-appointed Senate. Pheu Thai ended up joining with conservative parties in a sprawling unity government under the leadership of real estate mogul Srettha Thavisin.

After the election, during the period of protracted political horse-trading that followed the election, Pita came under fire for owning 42,000 shares in the defunct broadcaster iTV, and royalist petitioners filed several complaints seeking his disqualification on these grounds. In July, the court temporarily suspended Pita from Parliament after accepting one of these complaints. Two months later, he resigned as party leader.

Pita claimed that iTV had not broadcast since 2007, and that he transferred the shares, which were part of a family inheritance, to a relative prior to election day.

In its ruling yesterday, the Constitutional Court largely agreed with Pita’s defense, ruling that iTV had no broadcast concession at the time of last year’s election and should not be considered a mass media organization.

“iTV was not operating as a media company on the day the party submitted the respondent’s name for election,” Judge Punya Udchachon said in reading the court’s verdict, Al Jazeera reported. “Holding the shares did not violate the law. The court has ruled his MP status has not ended.”

After the ruling, Pita said he aimed to return to parliament “as soon as possible,” according to the AFP news agency. “We are asking the parliament when I am allowed to be back in – there is a discrepancy between two organizations, the court and the parliament. When I am allowed, I will be there,” he told reporters.

While Pita has overcome this first legal challenge, his troubles aren’t over. He and the MFP also face the much more serious accusation that they violated the country’s constitution because they have called for amendments to Article 112 of the Thai penal code, often called the lese-majeste law, which criminalizes criticism of the Thai monarchy and has been used to quash any hint of dissent of the prevailing political economy.

This was among the party’s main election promises, in addition to abolishing military conscription and breaking up the country’s powerful business monopolies.

The Constitutional Court is scheduled to rule next week on whether the MFP’s lese-majeste reform promise constituted an attempt to “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the king as the head of state.”

Even if Pita manages to surmount this challenge as well, the question of his future remains clouded. The fact is that the MFP remains very popular, especially now that Pheu Thai has joined with its former conservative foes. According to a recent survey from the National Institute of Development Administration cited by The New York Times, the MFP is the most popular party in the country and Pita remains a more popular choice for prime minister than Srettha.

If the MFP is allowed to participate in the country’s election, it is almost certain to perform well. Crucially, the military-appointed Senate will lose its veto power over the selection of prime minister later this year.

Thailand’s conservative-royalist elite has in the past gone to great lengths to keep genuine reformists out of office, through military coups to politically motivated court rulings. Most recently, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Future Forward Party, the MFP’s predecessor in early 2020 on a similar technicality to today’s case, and banned its leaders from politics for 10 years.

The question is less whether the establishment will seek to trip up Pita and the MFP but by what means. If it is not the current clutch of legal challenges, there is ample time to find another method of obstruction.