BANGKOK (Reuters) – A court in Thailand suspended the leader of an anti-junta political party as a member of parliament on Thursday, a day ahead of the opening of the legislature for the first time since a disputed March 24 election.
The Election Commission endorsed rising political star Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, 40, as a member of parliament this month but it later launched a case against him over his alleged illegal holding of shares in a media company.
Thanathorn, who has emerged as a thorn in the side of the military government, is now barred from taking up his seat pending a ruling by the Constitutional Court, which could see him permanently disqualified.
“The court has unanimously decided to accept the case for consideration and will send a document asking the accused to refute the charge within 15 days,” the court said in a statement.
The court did not say when it would deliver a verdict but said the suspension was necessary because Thanathorn’s role as a member of parliament could “cause legal problems” for the legislature.
Thanathorn’s new progressive, youth-oriented Future Forward Party came a surprise third in the March general election and has joined up with an opposition “democratic front” that aims to block junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha from staying on as prime minister.
The Election Commission accused Thanathorn of breaching the constitution by holding shares in a media company after registering as a candidate for the election.
Thanathorn has denied the charge and said he had already transferred his shares before he officially registered.
Nine Constitutional Court judges voted unanimously to accept the case and eight voted to suspend Thanathorn’s status as a member of parliament until the court delivers a verdict.
If found guilty, Thanathorn’s member of parliament status would be revoked.
A Future Forward spokeswoman questioned the court’s decision.
“Based on the law, the decision to suspend Thanathorn is rather strange,” the spokeswoman, Pannikar Wanich, told Reuters.
“Even though Thanathorn’s member of parliament role is suspended, he remains the prime minister candidate for the Future Forward party,” she said.
The Future Forward leader also faces two criminal charges, one for computer crime for a speech he posted on Facebook criticising the junta last year, and another for sedition for allegedly aiding anti-junta protesters in 2015.
Thanathorn, the heir to an auto-parts fortune, is a fresh face in Thai politics that has for the past decade and a half been divided between the royalist-military establishment and ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his loyalists.
Newly crowned king Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Sutida will preside over the opening of parliament on Friday, as elected lawmakers convene for the first time since a 2014 coup.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Robert Birsel)