There is irony in the Pheu Thai Party’s attempt to get its rival Bhumjaithai Party banned since this tactic was originally designed to eradicate Pheu Thai itself. The attempt will likely alienate Pheu Thai’s supporters and weaken its anti-regime stance.
In a strange twist of fate, the Pheu Thai Party has been toying with a plan to petition for the dissolution of its rival, the Bhumjaithai Party, over an allegation that could apply to Pheu Thai’s own controversial rice-pledging scheme a little over a decade ago.
According to opposition leader and Pheu Thai party leader Cholnan Srikaew, Bhumjaithai had promised to legalise cannabis for medical purposes in Thailand in its 2019 election campaign. Instead, it delivered, allegedly by design, a cannabis free-for-all without proper regulations and due diligence. Cholnan claimed that this may amount to an attempt to acquire state power through unlawful means – essentially violating the organic law on political parties that could see Bhumjaithai, the second largest coalition party, dissolved and its executives banned from politics.
There is little doubt that this allegation was politically timed – it occurred during the revision and vetting of the bill on cannabis and hemp control and before the next general election scheduled for 2023. It reveals, if anything, that Pheu Thai considers Bhumjaithai as a serious threat to its bid for a landslide electoral victory.
Bhumjaithai, led by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul, boasts a proven track record of electoral success not only in its stronghold in the lower northeastern provinces but also, more recently, in several southern provinces. The party has positioned itself as a lifeline that purportedly guarantees access to the future governing coalition, given its growing number of MPs and role as kingmaker with no permanent enemies or allies. This positioning will no doubt attract defectors and political heavyweights from other parties, not least those who attended the birthday party of Bhumjaithai’s de facto boss, Newin Chidchob, in early October.
The clearest discernible pattern in this high-profile series of bans is this: party dissolution has disproportionately affected parties that supported Thaksin or stood against military regimes.
Letting Bhumjaithai bask in the glory of having fulfilled a policy promise – a status once monopolised by Thaksin-affiliated parties – would have added to the party’s momentum at the expense of Pheu Thai. However, Pheu Thai’s attempt to nip Bhumjaithai’s growing dominance in the bud by seeking its dissolution has backfired catastrophically, culminating in a backlash that forced the party to backpedal just a day later.
This backlash should have been anticipated given that Pheu Thai’s former incarnations, the Thai Rak Thai Party and the Palang Prachachon Party, and Pheu Thai’s sister party, the Thai Raksa Chart Party, were all dissolved by court rulings. Their leaders were subsequently barred from politics for five to ten years.
The sheer irony that Pheu Thai has advocated for another party’s fate to be determined by seemingly arbitrary, if not politicised, decisions made by a handful of judges who seemingly answer to a higher power underscores how institutionalised “Thai-style” party dissolution has become. In its blind pursuit of electoral supremacy, Pheu Thai has become complicit, even if momentarily, in welcoming the judicialisation of politics that has systematically crippled democratic development in Thailand for the past 15 years.
Since 1998, when the power to dissolve political parties was vested in the newly established Constitutional Court, the Court or its equivalent has terminated more than a hundred parties —most for failing to meet certain eligibility criteria. However, following two royal speeches and a coup d’état in 2006, a noticeable pattern emerged as more serious allegations against some parties were brought to the Court. These allegations include, for example, attempting to overthrow the constitutional monarchy, gaining power through unconstitutional means, and posing a threat to national security.
In 2007, Thai Rak Thai, Prachatipatai Kaona, Pattana Chart Thai, and Pandin Thai were dissolved for “electoral misconduct” – a fate which the Democrat Party narrowly escaped, giving rise to the perception that the party was blessed by the military regime. In 2008, Palang Prachachon, Machimatipatai, Chart Thai were dissolved on similar grounds.
In 2019, Pheu Thai’s sister party, Thai Raksa Chart, was dissolved for nominating Princess Ubolratana as its candidate for prime minister – an act the Court deemed hostile to the constitutional monarchy. In 2020, opposition party Future Forward was dissolved for violating the laws regarding party donations after the party received a loan from its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
The clearest discernible pattern in this high-profile series of bans is this: party dissolution has disproportionately affected parties that supported Thaksin or stood against military regimes. This bolsters the impression that the Court, along with other relevant institutional bodies with members appointed or those with tenures extended under military rule, dances to the tune of whoever has power.
This “Thai-style” party dissolution should be shunned, not embraced, by any party that proclaims itself to be for democracy. Such practices undermine party institutions at the cost of entrenching political dynasties and informal patronage networks, which fill the vacuum created by the corresponding loss of local party branches and party labels. It excludes critical voices from formal representation, only to give rise to unmet and unorganised grievances outside Parliament with far more disruptive implications. Finally, it concentrates power in the Court but strips away whatever remains of its credibility and impartiality through such concentration.
The threat of party dissolution still looms large. In retaliation, Bhumjaithai may ask for a probe into Thaksin’s unlawful domination of Pheu Thai. Pro-monarchy forces have also sounded the alarm on the Move Forward Party’s campaign to reform royal defamation (lèse-majesté) laws. But, hopefully, Pheu Thai’s misstep will serve as a cautionary tale – that no party can get away with using party dissolution to seize political advantages while pretending to uphold the rule of law. Ultimately, the price of “Thai-style” party dissolution is always greater than its allure.
Napon Jatusripitak is Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is a PhD Researcher at Northwestern University.