Thai court blocks junta nemesis from entering parliament

The dramatic intervention is the latest blow against billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit (AFP Photo/Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)

Thailand's constitutional court on Thursday suspended the wildly popular leader of an anti-junta party from parliament a day before it convenes, putting the brakes on his political career as it agreed to hear a case against him.

The dramatic intervention is the latest blow against charismatic billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his youth-oriented Future Forward Party, which stunned the military establishment by securing over six million votes in March 24 elections but has been squeezed by more than a dozen legal cases.

The case moving forward now concerns allegations that he held shares in a media company when he registered to run, in violation of election rules.

The court decided to "accept the petition to rule on the case and will notify the accused," it said in a statement, adding his MP status was suspended until the verdict.

It did not give a date for the ruling.

The leader of Thailand's third biggest party will now miss the convening of parliament Friday and the vote for a lower house speaker Saturday.

But Thanathorn, who exudes celebrity appeal at rallies and on social media, remained defiant in response, calling on Thais to unite to "stop the dictatorship".

"I ask people who love justice to stand up and fight together," he said at his party headquarters, as supporters shouted "Fight Thanathorn!"

The vote for the prime minister could take place as early as next week.

But the constitutional court, which dissolved another anti-junta party in February, could ban Thanathorn from politics, impose a jail sentence and dissolve Future Forward.

The 40-year-old insists the media shares were divested weeks before he registered to run and has called the legal assaults political sabotage.

He also faces a sedition charge with a potential seven-year jail sentence and additional allegations that he violated the draconian computer crimes act with a Facebook live speech in which he criticised the junta.

Future Forward, which won 80 seats in parliament, has captured the hearts of young Thais weary of traditional divides between supporters of exiled tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and an elite aligned with the arch-royalist junta.

The party's MPs are a diverse force, including a transgender filmmaker, a prominent pro-democracy activist, and an advocate of home-brewing.

But if Thanathorn is pushed out, "the party will have less force or momentum in the parliament," said Attasit Pankaew from the political science faculty at Thammasat University.

March's poll was the first since Thailand's junta seized power in 2014, and coup leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha is standing for prime minister with a proxy party.

But the vote was slammed for the calculations used to distribute seats and a long delay before official results.

The final tally released earlier this month showed no clear winner and two medium-sized parties have yet to commit to a coalition.

But the junta's Palang Pracharat party has the upper hand thanks to a military-scripted charter allowing 250 appointed senators to vote for prime minister.