The case has sparked wider debate in Thailand about the stringency of the new electoral laws. On one hand, many activists view the current approach as necessary to ensure a new standard in politics while others are advocating a more pragmatic regime.
Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit expressed confidence on Friday that established legal precedent would lead ultimately to the dismissal of the case against him before the Constitutional Court which began hearings on the matter today.
Speaking to reporters, he said he had nothing to hide as the case brought against him by the Election Commission went on before the Constitutional Court sitting in Bangkok. He added that he was happy to explore all the documentation and circumstances relating to his shareholding in a media company which according to Thailand’s election commission breached the electoral law and consequently disqualified him as both a candidate for the March 24th election and thereby his status as a sitting MP. The election oversight body brought the case against him in May.
First day’s hearing in a case with implications for Thai politics and the progressive Future Forward Party
The leader of Thailand’s Future Forward Party came before the Constitutional Court in Bangkok in the first day’s hearing of a case that has already seen him suspended from his duties as an MP.
The removal of the Future Forward leader as an MP would be a significant blow to the party which Mr Thanathorn co-founded only last year with Thammasat University legal expert Piyabutr Saengkanokkul who currently leads the party in the House of Representatives.
Bugbear of the military establishment
The case against the 40-year-old politician whose party has emerged from nowhere the become a key voice in Thai politics and the bugbear of the military establishment was referred to the Constitutional Court by the Election Commission shortly after election results confirmed his party’s breakthrough earlier in May.
Radical policies and vow to prosecute coup leaders
Mr Thanathorn and his party have adopted a radical anti-military and progressive stance in their policies. They are highly critical of the military’s continued influence in the civilian arena and have made military spending and compulsory conscription key issues. Mr Thanathorn has also repeatedly vowed to prosecute all former military officers of the highest rank who have participated in the coups against civilian governments.
Thought to be the focus of a highly charged but indirect attack last week by Thailand’s army leader
He was the indirect subject of a strong attack last Friday when army leader General Apirat Kongsompong railed against the ideology and vision that Mr Thanathorn’s party has for Thailand in a highly charged speech.
Mr Thanathorn is also the subject of a police complaint lodged by military officers of the 4th army working with Internal Security Operations Command in Pattani earlier this month following controversial comments on the constitution made by an academic panellist in a discussion which he was party to at the event organised by the opposition alliance of parties to the current government held in the southern province on September 28th.
Future Forward currently holds 81 seats in the House of Representatives, Thailand’s new legislative chamber. Mr Thanathorn’s status is currently frozen pending the outcome of the legal proceedings for which hearings commenced today.
Rigid and strong electoral laws
The case is somewhat complicated. Under Thailand’s strong and rigid constitutional and electoral laws, all politicians are particularly barred from holding shareholdings or participating in media firms. They also required to make full disclosure of their status to the election commission before being deemed eligible as a candidate.
Strict laws to prevent wealthy populist politicians dominating the political discourse
This body has demanded very high standards as is stipulated by the law. The new laws are the product of years of reform and designed to thwart populist political leaders with large financial backing and access to media resources dominating political discourse and events in Thailand as seen in the era of Thaksin Shinawatra.
Company at the centre of the case is V-Luck Media Company Ltd which ceased trading last year
Mr Thanathorn was a major shareholder in a publishing company that published an inflight magazine for an airline which was called V-Luck Media Company Ltd.
The firm ceased operations in November last year. Mr Thanthorn argues that he signed paperwork to resign his position and involvement with the firm before proposing himself as an eligible candidate to the election commission by a February deadline imposed before the general election on March 24th this year.
Thanathorn’s candidacy was accepted by the Election Commission in February this year
Mr Thanathorn’s candidacy was subsequently accepted by the commission and he won a seat riding on the huge wave of support his party generated among educated young people in Thailand and urban voters particularly in Bangkok.
However, in the run-up to the election, the shareholding controversy surfaced. It was revealed by the election commission that records at the Department of Business Development with the Ministry of Commerce showed the young politician still to be a shareholder of the small media firm.
This was subsequently adjusted by officials with an effective date of March 21st when the relevant paperwork was processed in the relevant government department.
Young politician says his resignation from the company occurred when he signed the paperwork before standing as a candidate
Mr Thanathorn and his lawyers are arguing that the effective date that he resigned from the company was the day he signed the paperwork while the election commission is pursuing a stricter interpretation and standard requiring that this should have been confirmed officially before the date the Mr Thanathorn submitted his candidacy.
The politician is further arguing that because the company was not trading or active, then the matter is extraneous as it has no practical effect on his status as a candidate when looking to the ultimate purpose of the law.
Wider debate about the stringency of Thailand’s recent electoral laws has risen up over the case
The case has sparked a wider debate in Thailand about how the legal system is used and the culture of the use of law in Thailand to resolve political disputes.
There have been calls from one side for a more common-sense approach to legislation governing elections. For now, the current laws can only be adjudicated on by Thailand’s judges with their own distinct jurisprudence.
It is understood that 10 witnesses will be called in the course of the hearing.
Thanathorn confident as the case got underway on Friday but promised full transparency
On Friday in Bangkok, Mr Thanathorn sounded confident. He said that his position is that nothing was being presented to the court that he had to answer for.
He explained that his confidence was based on legal precedent set by the court in relation to other cases relating to questions of company shareholding.
He was happy however to be able to produce all documentation and supplementary information involved with the matter to allay any concerns. This would show his commitment to being transparent and accountable to the law and the public.
Praised Future Forward followers and supporters
He used the occasion to publish Twitter comments praising the Future Forward MPs in parliament. He also thanked the supporters of the party for sharing his political views and vision for Thailand.