BANGKOK - A stridently anti-military Thai party was dissolved Friday and its key members banned from politics for a decade over a $6 million loan by its billionaire founder, a withering blow to the kingdom's pro-democracy movement.
The ruling could edge the politically febrile kingdom -- whose economy is shrinking -- closer to the street protests that have scored much of the last 15 years of Thai history.
The Future Forward Party (FFP), fronted by the charismatic auto-parts scion Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, emerged from nowhere in March last year to become Thailand's third-biggest party in the first elections since a 2014 coup.
The party's radical agenda -- calling for full democracy, an end to conscription and the removal of the army from politics and business -- won it 6.3 million votes and pitched it against the powerful, conservative military.
But since their strong poll showing, Thanathorn and his 76 lawmakers have faced relentless rounds of legal cases in Thailand's courts.
On Friday the nine-member constitutional court dissolved FFP, ruling a $6 million loan by Thanathorn breached the law governing political parties.
The loan exceeded the $315,000 limit on donations to parties by an individual, one judge said.
Sixteen party executives, including founder Thanathorn, were also "banned for running for political office for 10 years," judge Nakarin Mektriarat added.
Future Forward has denied wrongdoing.
A defiant Thanathorn, who has 29 court cases lodged against him and his party, told supporters "don't give up, don't stop the dream."
"In the darkest day for Thai society, I can say that I did not sit still waiting for it to explode," he added, of establishing the now-disbanded party.
The same court has taken out several pro-democracy parties since 2008 and knocked two anti-establishment prime ministers from power.
Late Friday around 500 Future Forward supporters -- many young -- gathered at its downtown Bangkok headquarters to cheer defiant speeches and political rap songs.
"Today is not a last page of the book," Thanathorn, who has vowed to build a progressive movement outside of parliament, told the crowd.
"Today is the last page of chapter one. Tomorrow we will start the second chapter."
The ruling puts a pin in the immediate political aspirations of Thanathorn, whose emergence on the Thai political stage has inspired millennials but frightened the country's conservative establishment.
"I don't understand why they do this. Do they want people to come out on to the street?" a desolate FFP supporter at the party headquarters told AFP, requesting anonymity.
Thailand has seen several rounds of bloody competing street protests roughly between those who support democracy and those who buttress the royalist army establishment, which draws on the backing and wealth of the kingdom's oligarchs.
Thailand's economy is on the ropes -- freshly winded by the sharp tail-off in tourism as fears over the coronavirus slow travel -- while patience with the army-affiliated government of Prayut Chan-O-Cha is running out.
Prayut led the 2014 coup against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.
But the gaffe-prone former army chief has been openly ridiculed since restrictions on free political expression were eased last year.
"Will the (court) decision bring demonstrators to the streets? Sure it will," said analyst Paul Chambers of Thailand's Naresuan University.
"The question is only whether the demonstrations will create sufficient chaos to further weaken the government of Prayut."
Future Forward MPs remain lawmakers but have 60 days to find another party in parliament.
The party could also relaunch, but without its charismatic key executives is likely to struggle to keep the same number in their ranks.
Critics say Thailand's army-scripted constitution has created a lop-sided parliament stacked with former generals.