Thai court orders popular opposition party dissolved

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BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Constitutional Court on Friday ordered the popular opposition Future Forward Party dissolved, declaring that it violated election law by accepting a loan from its leader.

The court also imposed a 10-year ban on the party's executive members holding political office.

The ruling against the party comes just ahead of a no-confidence debate in parliament set to begin Monday against Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and several of his Cabinet members. The party has been an irritant to the government and the conservative forces in Thai society that back it, because of both its reformist positions and its popularity.

The party placed a strong and surprising third in a general election last March and currently holds 76 seats in Thailand's House of Representatives.

It was founded in March 2018 as Thailand was heading toward an election after a period of military rule that began with a 2014 coup.

There are 16 members of the party's executive committee, 11 of whom are members of parliament and lose their seats. The party's remaining 65 lawmakers can take part in the upcoming no-confidence debate, but must find a new party within 30 days to keep their seats. It was not immediately clear how the 11 empty seats will be filled.

The Constitutional Court was referred the case by the Election Commission, which in December determined that the Future Forward Party had broken the law by accepting a 191 million baht ($6.03 million) loan from its founder and chief, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.

The commission said it considered the loan tantamount to a donation, which are limited to 10 million baht ($316,000).

The party's main defense was that the law makes no mention of loans. Thanathorn is a 41-year-old billionaire whose family fortune was made in the auto parts industry.

“This is a setback for the opposition parties but may be a political disaster for the military-backed regime," said Kevin Hewison, a professor emeritus of the University of North Carolina and veteran Thai studies scholar. "Political uncertainty could potentially destabilize a regime already struggling with several crises and a moribund economy.”

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