Thai election panel wants opposition party dissolved over loans from leader

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand’s election panel asked the Constitutional Court on Wednesday to dissolve the opposition Future Forward Party, accusing it of infringing laws governing political parties by accepting multimillion-dollar loans from its leader.

FILE PHOTO: Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, speaks during a news conference at the parliament in Bangkok, Thailand June 5, 2019. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 41, has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of the government headed by former junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha after the party he helped found came a surprise third in an election in March and has since emerged as the most vocal challenge to the government.

“The loan to the Future Forward Party from Mr. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit... violates article 72 of political party legislation,” the Election Commission said in a statement.

It was referring to a clause that forbids acceptance of money, assets, or interests from questionable sources.

The party borrowed 191.2 million baht ($6.3 million) in two sums, one of 161.2 million baht ($5.3 million) in January, and a second of 30 million ($994,000) in April, Thanathorn said in an official declaration of assets to an anti-graft panel.

A dissolution of the party could also lead to a bar from politics for party officials, although the legislation sets no timeframe.

“Why is the money we got through loans from Thanathorn, the party leader, questionable? The Election Commission did not explain this,” Future Forward Party Secretary-General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul said, accusing the election panel of not providing enough reasons for the case.

Thai political party law does not bar parties from taking loans. Future Forward Party has previously made its loans public and said that they will be paid back with interest.

“The decision by the election commission will not stop Future Forward’s journey,” Piyabutr said.

“Let it be known that the party created for the search of a new future for the country doesn’t have a place to stand,” he said.

Last week, Thanathorn accused the government of unfairly targeting him and the party with a string of legal tactics that undermined democracy in Thailand, which had been under military rule until the March election, following a 2014 coup.

Analyst warn that the move by the Election Commission to dissolve the Future Forward party could backfire on the government.

“This could escalate the popularity of the Future Forward Party and if it gets dissolved the party’s popularity won’t die but will become stronger,” Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University told Reuters.

“But it is bad for democracy,” he said.

Since the election, Thanathorn was suspended from parliament and was found guilty last month of breaching election law by holding shares in a media company on the date his candidacy was registered for the election.

“They use the law to destroy political opposition, something that has been going on since the 2014 coup,” Titipol said.

“This shows that the election didn’t back democracy but it has empowered the military to do whatever they want,” he said.

Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Hugh Lawson