Piyabutr vs Move Forward: Election pressure splits Thailand’s reformist movement

Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has issued a wake-up call to the opposition Move Forward Party, whose predecessor he co-founded, warning it faces a dilemma and must now choose the “best path” to contest the next general election.

Move Forward, he says, has two options: compromise on its ideology in hope of joining the next government, or remain steadfast in its stance as a “new force” in Thai society to stand out from its competitors.

The academic-turned-politician said the second path would certainly be more difficult for the party, as it risked attracting “attacks from every side”. But he reckoned that a clear-cut standpoint would draw support from voters who want reforms for the country.

“It’s better than daydreaming and sitting on the fence in the hope of becoming part of a government – which may never happen. Campaign with a clear platform and the election result will show whether you make it to government,” Piyabutr said in a Facebook post on January 20.

He also pointed out that time was running out for Move Forward, as the national poll is approaching fast.

“With little over three months remaining before the next election, Move Forward Party needs to consider and choose the best way for itself and for Thai society,” he said.

An estranged ally

Piyabutr, 43, is secretary-general of the Progressive Movement, a political pressure group formed after his Future Forward Party was disbanded by the Constitutional Court in February 2020 for illegal donations.

Move Forward is Future Forward’s reincarnation, and Piyabutr is among key leaders of the now-defunct party who retain influence over its successor. Move Forward is generally considered to be the child of Future Forward and the Progressive Movement’s closest ally.

However, Piyabutr appears to have drifted away from the party and its leadership, particularly its leader Pita Limjaroenrat. Last December, Piyabutr announced that he no longer worked for Move Forward and that he was only involved with the party as a former colleague and supporting voter.

The estrangement seemed to come after Move Forward rebranded ahead of the election, shedding its image of an “extremist party” and becoming a “centre-left” political outfit. It is perhaps significant that Piyabutr’s firm stance on amending or even abolishing the lèse-majesté law is no longer a priority for Move Forward.

Facebook has become the key channel of communication between Piyabutr and Move Forward as the gap between them widens.

Move Forward politicians reportedly disagreed with Piyabutr’s hardline stance on certain party campaign points, particularly amendment of the lèse-majesté law and reform of the monarchy. Considered radical, these policies would likely undermine the party’s chance of forming a government coalition with allies, particularly its fellow opposition Pheu Thai Party, which is expected to win the largest number of seats in the next election.

New force vs old

However, Piyabutr reckons Move Forward is better off sticking to its reformist principles and its status as a “new force” in Thai politics against the conservative status quo.

For him, this is the only way for the party to repeat the success of its predecessor in the 2019 election. Future Forward won 80 of the 500 MP seats up for grabs in a stunning electoral debut.

A France-educated law professor, Piyabutr has campaigned relentlessly for reform of the Thai monarchy and change to the royal defamation law, Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Under Article 112, anyone found guilty of insulting the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent, or the Regent is liable to a punishment of three to 15 years in prison.

In June last year, Piyabutr was accused of violating the lèse-majesté law for calling for monarchy reform. In response, he insisted his comments on the Thai monarchy and calls for reform were aimed purely at helping the institution survive modern-day challenges.

As a lecturer in law at Thammasat University, Piyabutr was part of the Nitirat group of academics that actively campaigned for changes to the lèse-majesté law, which they viewed as draconian and a tool used by the powers-that-be to target political enemies.

His detractors often paint him as an enemy of the monarchy, particularly after he encouraged a “citizens’ revolution” and an “uprooting change” at the height of student-led street protests in 2020. However, he has publicly rejected the allegation that he and other key Progressive Movement leaders back the abolition of the monarchy.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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