Even If Thailand’s MFP Is Dissolved, the Monarchy Reform Movement Will Live On

Recent Features

ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

Even If Thailand’s MFP Is Dissolved, the Monarchy Reform Movement Will Live On

If disbanded over its pledge to reform the country’s “sacred” institution, the Move Forward Party will simply re-emerge in new form.

Even If Thailand’s MFP Is Dissolved, the Monarchy Reform Movement Will Live On

Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party, speaks ahead of the prime ministerial vote in Thailand’s Parliament, July 13, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/Pita Limjaroenrat – พิธา ลิ้มเจริญรัตน์

For decades, there was no way of really knowing what most Thais thought about the monarchy. You could glean something of the institution’s popularity from private conversations. When millions took to the streets to commemorate the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the consensus was that the institution was in good repute. When similar-sized crowds took to the streets throughout 2020 and 2021 to protest against the military government, at which some republican demands were also heard, the consensus was that the institution had fallen into ill repute. But there have never been opinion polls, and even had there been, they would have had to be tainted by what people thought it was permissible to say.

But in May 2023 we finally did get an answer to the question. The Move Forward Party (MFP), which had campaigned on a policy to reform the monarchy and the infamous royal defamation law, won 37 percent of the vote at that month’s general elections, making it by far the largest party in Thailand. It was also the largest party on the constituency list, winning 32 out of Bangkok’s 33 constituencies, for example.

Of course, not everyone who voted for the MFP did so specifically because they wanted to reform the monarchy. However, more than 14 million Thais voted for the MFP knowing that the party wanted to reform the monarchy. And they did so despite other parties, commentators, and newspapers claiming endlessly for months that the MFP was actually a republican movement that sought to overthrow the monarchy and plunge Thailand into chaos. In short, no one could claim ignorance about the MFP’s stance on the monarchy.

Now, Thailand’s ultra-conservative Election Commission wants the MFP to be dissolved because of the party’s campaign to reform Section 112 of the criminal code, more commonly known as the lese-majeste law, which protects the monarchy from insult. Specifically, the MFP is accused of violating Article 92 of the Political Parties Act, which makes it illegal for a party to campaign to overthrow the Thai monarchy. If this is proven, the party can be dissolved and the party’s lawmakers banned from politics for 10 years. The Constitutional Court, which accepted the Election Commission’s petition, has given the party until May 3 to submit its defense. The MFP is asking for another extension.

It should be obvious why Thailand’s reactionaries want the MFP gone. The party has been a strong opposition in parliament to the ruling coalition that includes some reactionary and military-linked parties. The MFP has also sapped votes away from the ostensibly pro-democracy Pheu Thai Party, the largest of the coalition parties.

But the way the reactionaries have gone about trying to dissolve the MFP is rather puzzling and self-defeating. To do so, they, and potentially the Constitutional Court, appear happy to insinuate that two-fifths of the Thai electorate aren’t put off by a party that apparently wants to overthrow the monarchy.

There isn’t any other way of squaring their claim. Either the MFP wants to overthrow the monarchy – and so its 14 million-plus voters knew this and supported the party in spite or because of it – or the party and two-fifths of the electorate don’t want to overthrow the monarchy. When it comes to elections, voters must be complicit by association. You have to assume that they knew what they were voting for. If you want to argue that a party’s policies have no bearing on a voter’s preference – as the reactionaries will no doubt do if the MFP is dissolved – you’re pretty much arguing against the entire purpose of elections, which is the rather bizarre argument to be put forward by the election commission.

The MFP’s opponents aren’t going to admit to this logical leap. But it appears to be one of those cases where the cure is worse than the apparent disease. To protect the constitutional monarchy, to claim that it remains in a “position of revered worship,” its defenders think the best course of action is to assert that a significant majority of the population (knowingly) voted for a party that wants to tear it down! Indeed, the election commission isn’t claiming that the MFP campaigned to overthrow the Thai monarchy after the election. It says it did so beforehand.

If one were genuinely fearful of the monarchy’s downfall, the last thing one would want to do is insinuate that much of the electorate is content to vote for a party that apparently wants to overthrow the institution. Indeed, the policy of the monarchists and reactionaries for decades has been not to acknowledge any republican or reformist sentiment in society, except when meting out lengthy, pour encourager les autres prison sentences to anyone who wrote a negative social media post.

In reality, the MFP doesn’t want to overthrow the monarchy: it wants to reform the monarchy; it wants to make Thailand a little more constitutional and a little less monarchical. And, presumably, that’s also what a significant number of people who voted for the MFP also want. Banning the party won’t change that; the MFP would just re-emerge under a new guise. And how the election commission has gone about trying to ban the MFP only highlights the enthusiasm for reform.