BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Election Commission ruled Wednesday that a popular opposition party broke the law by accepting an illegal loan from its head, a decision that could lead to its dissolution and unsettle the country's politics.
The commission announced Future Forward Party chief Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit's 191 million baht ($6.3 million) loan violated election laws, and said it will forward the case to the Constitutional Court, which could dissolve the party and force its lawmakers out of Parliament. The brief statement from the commission implied that it considered the loan to be a donation by referring to an article that limits legal donations to 10 million baht ($330,000).
The commission must refer its motion to the court within 15 days.
Thanathorn's party, which finished third in a March general election, has been an irritant to Thailand's conservative establishment, in whose favor the courts have consistently ruled. The party is disliked by the officialdom only for its anti-military stance, but also because of its strong popularity.
The coalition government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha currently holds a shaky majority in Parliament, and the expulsion of Future Forward Party members would strengthen its position.
However, it could also energize Prayuth's opponents, who believe that the March election was conducted under unfair rules implemented by the military regime he headed from a 2014 coup until earlier this year. They also feel the Future Forward Party is being unfairly targeted, contending that members of government parties have acted in a similar manner without punishment.
Party executives had no immediate reaction to the ruling.
Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club last week, Thanathorn said that the legal cases against him and his party were "ïrrelevant" compared with an effort by the establishment to not allow "peaceful transitions through democracy to happen.”
“Nobody knows what could happen when people lost faith in the parliament system, where there is no hope left, where there is no possibility to win the power peacefully,”' said Thanathorn. “The establishment, the junta, they seem certain that they could contain it, that they could control it. But many think otherwise. Many I talked to are not convinced. I think this is a very dangerous gamble."
Political battles caused serious turmoil in Thailand from 2006-2014, including two coups and massive street protests involving contending groups, police and the military.
Thanathorn's defense in the latest case against him was that the Political Parties Act makes no mention of loans. The law limits anyone from donating, giving money or assets in any form in excess of 10 million baht ($330,000) in any 12-month period, but it allows parties to conduct fundraisers and receive donations to finance their activities.
Prayuth told reporters Wednesday he had nothing to do with the process against Thanathorn, saying a ruling was solely under the court's jurisdiction.
“I can confirm that I have never given any order or interfered with any legal process," he said. “”I know what my role is, trust me.”
The Constitutional Court last month ruled that the 40-year-old Thanathorn could not keep his seat in the lower house because he had violated another election law barring owners of media companies from running for Parliament. Thanathorn said the company in which he had a share was defunct and he had divested his holding by the necessary deadline. If further investigation determines that he knowingly broke the law, he could face a ban from holding future political positions.
The Future Forward Party has been seeking to amend the country's constitution — adopted during a period of army rule — to make it more democratic.