'Thanathorn effect' shaking up politics

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's fate seems to be sealed. Will the party survive? Bangkok Post photo

The Constitutional Court's ruling to suspend Future Forward Party leader (FFP) Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as a member of parliament (MP) over a shareholding saga has created what is known as the "Thanathorn effect", which has rattled Thai politics.

The court on Thursday unanimously voted 9-0 to accept the case against Mr Thanathorn as requested by the Election Commission (EC).

It also voted 8-1 to suspend the businessman-turned-politician from his MP duties.

The shareholding case came to light when Isra News Agency detected the assets in question in V-Luck Media Co, a family-owned firm, and raised a question about his qualifications in accordance with the charter.

Now, the FFP leader is facing a rocky road ahead as the EC is looking into the possibility that it should take up another controversy regarding Mr Thanathorn's loans to his own party.

The FFP leader revealed last week at a discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand that he is a creditor of the party, having loaned 110 million baht to finance campaign rallies and activities.

Election laws allow parties to conduct fundraisers and/or receive donations to finance their activities, but place certain restrictions on contributions.

If the 110 million baht is considered a donation, Mr Thanathorn would have violated Section 66 of the organic law on parties, which caps personal donations at 10 million baht per year.

The two cases may lead to the end of Mr Thanathorn's political future.

If he is found guilty in the shares case, he will be banned from politics for 10 years and will lose his grip on the FFP, like Thaksin Shinawatra and Pheu Thai.

Worse, he may face criminal charges that are punishable by imprisonment, and the party may be dissolved.

It's undeniable that Mr Thanathorn is a target of the pro-status quo camp that wants to see him out of the political arena.

The FFP, despite being a newcomer, caused a political phenomenon when it grabbed a sizeable 6.3 million popular votes that landed 80 members in parliament.

The party has become a beacon of hope for the new generation, who are fed up with old, polarised politics.

In his early days in politics, Mr Thanathorn branded himself as a prai, someone from the lower strata of the population, and this assertion has earned him the ironic title of "Prai Muen Laan" (proletarian multi-billionaire).

His confrontation with the army during election campaigns, including his idea to downsize the military and his left-leaning ideals, have made those in traditional politics think he is "too dangerous".

This explains why political elements have made use of vague and nonsensical clauses of the charter to get rid of him.

It's Mr Thanathorn's carelessness and missteps that left him in a quagmire.

But politics without Mr Thanathorn as FFP leader in parliament are also dangerous. Mr Thanathorn has sent a signal that he plans to "work with 6.3 million voters outside the parliament", while scrutinising the new government that sees Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as its prospective leader.

If that is the case, the number of sympathisers is likely to increase overwhelmingly, as many believe that the two cases against him are politically motivated, and that the FFP leader is treated unfairly by agencies set up by the junta.

Tomorrow's by-election in Chiang Mai, an anti-military junta province, which could see a yellow-carded Pheu Thai member replaced, will provide a chance to prove that voters favour Mr Thanathorn's sentiments.

Pheu Thai received 52,165 votes in the March 24 poll, followed by Palang Pracharath (39,221) and the FFP (29,556).

FFP will emerge the winner if Pheu Thai supporters shift their votes to an anti-regime party and the charter court over what they view as injustice to Mr Thanathorn.

In addition, there is an expectation that the "Thanathorn effect" may impact local administration elections that also include the election of the Bangkok governor and heads of local agencies in many provinces.

Big questions for the FFP include: Will the party become weak without Mr Thanathorn? Can Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, FFP secretary-general, handle the party on his own?

The answer will lie within the party itself -- whether or not it is able to take on the challenge and develop into a political institution and not just an ad-hoc entity or cult party.

It is likely that even if Mr Thanathorn cannot lead the FFP, post-coup politics will provide a chance for the FFP to shine as an opposition party, given its capable MPs.

The party has every reason to perform a political game-changer and do what it can to fulfil the expectations of 6.3 million voters.

With the Thanathorn effect, it appears that Thai politics will move beyond the Thaksin factor.

At least we are seeing a rise in political awareness among the young, new generations, in the face of widening political polarisation and growing conflicts.

Chairith Yonpiam is an assistant news editor of the Bangkok Post.

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