Democracy on Trial: The Hard Journey of Pita and Move Forward Party

Thailand’s democracy is being tested in the courtrooms. Thailand’s opposition leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, and his Move Forward Party are entangled in significant legal battles that pose a serious threat to the country’s democracy. The situation is critical and demands attention. 

The country, characterized by its constitutional monarchy, has long been under the influence of both royals and the military, whose allegiance to the kingdom surpasses that to the government. Democratic aspirations received a boost last year through a landmark election that saw Pita Limjaroenrat’s Move Forward Party clinch victory. However, the current trajectory deviates from the nation’s democratic ideals. Increasing legal challenges have led to Pita’s removal from parliament, ensnaring both the party and its leader in a complex web of legal intricacies. Pita’s parliamentary return faces formidable obstacles imposed by the recently established government, which enjoys support from the military and royalists.

In a recent development, Pita Limjaroenrat and seven other political figures have been handed suspended sentences by a Thai court for orchestrating an unlawful rally in 2019. This legal verdict adds to the hurdles confronting the opposition Move Forward Party, which recently faced a constitutional court ruling against it. The court’s decision highlighted that the party had undermined the monarchy and national security, as it advocated for amendments to the law safeguarding the monarchy from criticism.

Limjaroenrat’s recent sentencing represents a substantial legal setback. Despite his recent reinstatement as a Member of Parliament, Pita faces potential disqualification should his appeal prove unsuccessful and the courts uphold the verdict. The legal framework in Thailand prohibits individuals convicted of serious crimes from holding parliamentary seats, prompting an organized effort to remove him from office. Charges against him include orchestrating an unlawful rally, and this setback follows a recent Thai court ruling that found his Move Forward party had undermined the monarchy.

The Move Forward party is now confronted with the imminent threat of dissolution. Legal challenges have escalated in the aftermath of the recent constitutional court ruling, heightening the possibility of bans on the party’s executives from participating in political activities.

The National Assembly of Thailand, (Ratthasapha in Thai), operates as the bicameral legislative branch of the Thai government Established in 1932 following the adoption of Thailand’s inaugural constitution, the formation of the National Assembly marked the country’s transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Comprising a Senate and a House of Representatives, the bicameral legislature boasts a total of 750 members. Among them, 500 are directly elected through a general election, constituting the lower house. The remaining 250 Senate members are appointed by the military. Elections in Thailand predominantly adhere to the first-past-the-post system, with 400 House of Representatives members elected through this method. The remaining 100 House members are elected through party list proportional representation.

In the general elections held on May 14, 2023, to elect 500 House of Representatives members, the Move Forward Party, led by Pita Limjaroenrat, surprised analysts by securing the highest number of seats. The Pheu Thai party, also in the opposition, followed closely, having previously won the most seats in the 2011 and 2019 elections. The voter turnout set a record at 75.22%. Despite emerging as a youthful and progressive force, winning the majority of votes and seats in the previous year’s election, Move Forward has encountered obstacles in realizing its agenda. The party’s promises of military reform, dismantling corporate monopolies, and amending the lese-majeste law were met with resistance. Unelected senators, aligned with the military royalist establishment, blocked the party from assuming power. Move Forward’s liberal platform and significant appeal among young and urban voters are perceived as a potential challenge to the established order in Thailand.

The legal challenges against those perceived as opposing democracy in Thailand extend beyond Pita’s case. Several ongoing cases underscore the tension between supporters of democracy and those aligned with the constitutional monarchy. In a recent development on Monday, a district court in Bangkok issued a suspended four-month prison sentence for two years to six prominent figures associated with Move Forward’s precursor, the now-defunct Future Forward Party (FFP). Additionally, two activists received sentences in connection with the same issue.

Thailand has long considered criticism of the lese-majesty law and the royal family as a forbidden topic. Pita’s rise to prominence was propelled by mass youth-led protests that called for changes to the monarchy’s role, including the abolition of lese-majesty. However, the authorities resist these changes, leading to charges against the main protest leaders. Over 260 individuals, including children, have faced prosecution under lese-majesty, also known as Article 112 of the criminal code. This law is broadly interpreted, allowing cases to be filed by anyone.

It is evident that Pita and the Move Forward Party face an uncertain future, with implications for their participation in future elections. However, the people’s desire for democracy persists, and they are likely to rally behind new leaders and parties in the future.