WEDNESDAY, February 28, 2024
Traditionalists wield the power to reform the reformists
By Voranai Vanijaka

The Constitutional Court’s verdict on January 31 against the reformist Move Forward Party brought clarity and confusion on what a political party can or cannot do.

According to the verdict, Move Forward must cease and desist from words and actions that “would lead” to abolishing Article 112, Thailand’s lese majeste law. The court deemed that such words and actions “would lead” to the “erosion” and “destruction” of Thailand’s governance of “Democracy with the King as Head of State”. This is not yet considered treason, but the court said it would lead to treason.

Though Move Forward’s policy is to amend Article 112, not abolish it, the charter court cited several pieces of evidence to support its verdict. On a campaign stage in the run-up to the general election, then Move Forward leader Pita Limjaroenrat told anti-lese majeste activists that only Move Forward had the policy to amend the law, and, if that was denied, he said, “We would work together to abolish the law.”

Therefore, we have clarity, whether we like it or not: Words and actions that in any way imply abolishing Article 112 would lead to treason. Hence, to stay clear of committing treason is to remain silent. But here is the confusion.

The Constitutional Court also ordered the Move Forward Party to cease and desist from using any means other than the legal process to amend Article 112. The verdict prompted debates among academics, activists, and commentators. Firstly, isn’t the legal process already the only means to amend any law? What other means could there be? Secondly, does this mean any discussion involving amendment outside the legal process is unconstitutional?

In addition, the Constitutional Court stated it is treasonous to use “rights and freedom” that “would lead” to the “overthrow” of Thailand’s governance. Again, confusion abounds and the debate is wide open: What does it mean? What constitutes “would lead”?

While society puzzles over the legal wording, one thing is certain: Uncertainty.

Amid this uncertainty, the Move Forward Party removed its Article 112 amendment policy from its 2023 National Election website. This prompted a social media debate among its supporters. Some questioned: “Why did you remove it? The court didn’t order you to do it. You can still amend the law.” Others replied: “Are you certain? Because we are not certain about anything.”

Therein lies the verdict's impact: Uncertainty serves the rule of fear. 

The rule of fear breeds paralysis. If Move Forward stops pursuing amendment of Article 112, then the issue is politically paralysed. If there’s uncertainty about what can or cannot be said in public discussion, then there could be social paralysis over amending Article 112.

Furthermore, since the legal wording is wide open to interpretation, the Constitutional Court can interpret whatever, whenever, and however. Also, it opens to criticism that the judicial branch has power “over” the legislative branch, rather than “balance” the legislative branch.

Like clockwork, on February 1, a petition was filed with the Election Commission to dissolve the Move Forward Party and ban its party executives from politics for 10 years. The next day, another petition was filed with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for a lifetime ban from politics for “ethical breaches” of the 44 Move Forward MPs who had signed the proposal to amend Article 112.

While society debates the legal merits of the above issues, they must remember one thing: Academics, activists, commentators, and the public can interpret, but only the judicial interpretation has legal ramifications.

Another reminder is this: On March 7, 2019, the Constitutional Court dissolved the Thai Raksa Chart Party for nominating Princess Ubolratana as its prime minister candidate. On February 21, 2020, it dissolved the Future Forward Party, the predecessor to the Move Forward Party, for receiving a loan of 191.2 million baht from party leader Thanathorn Juangrungruangkit. Therefore, the cause for party dissolution is like an international buffet, there are many choices.

There’s also a bonus reminder: On September 21, 2023, Pannika Wanich, a former MP and spokesperson of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, received a lifetime ban for “ethical breaches” for a photo posted on social media 13 years ago, when she was a university student.

If there’s one thing we can take away from the January 31 verdict, it is that while reformists want to reform the country, traditionalists have the power to reform the reformists.