As Thailand edges closer to March 24 elections, the first to be held in the kingdom in nearly eight years, the upstart anti-military Future Forward Party is increasingly under siege.
Among the parties competing for seats at the upcoming polls, the progressive party has arguably been the most outspoken among those campaigning against a continuation of military rule under the guise of democracy.
The party’s political novice leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has vowed if elected to break the kingdom’s cycle of democracy-suspending coups and has put military-containing constitutional change at the heart of his political agenda.
The 2017 constitution, approved in a national referendum where campaigning for ‘no’ votes was forbidden, ensures a long-term political role for the armed forces, a structure that will give top brass soldiers overarching powers over elected politicians for the foreseeable future.
Those military-enacted measures include a 20-year national strategy that will straitjacket civilian governments’ ability to implement independent policies, a military-appointed Senate with powers to check, balance and remove elected officials, and a new electoral system that favors small and medium sized parties that will inevitably result in shaky, weak coalitions.
Thanathorn has openly rejected this vision of military guided democracy, likened by some to the order that prevailed in the country in the 1980s, and has instead called for major revisions to the constitution that would aim to send political soldiers back to the barracks.
He has also controversially championed the cause of military reform, including through a reduction in the number of generals, establishment of more accountability mechanisms, elimination of conscription and slashed military budgets.
With the military firmly in control of the country’s politics for nearly five years, any move to limit the influence of the armed forces— and hence its future ability to control and topple elected governments —is already being strongly resisted by the top brass.
After last week’s court-ordered dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, another anti-military upstart party more clearly aligned with self-exiled, coup-toppled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, analysts believe the Future Forward party could be next.
Thanathorn faces charges under the draconian Computer Crime Act for allegedly spreading “false information” on the party’s Facebook pages for criticizing the military’s proxy Palang Pracharath Party.
Coup-installed Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha fronts the new party as its prime ministerial candidate. Voters won’t know until two days after the election whether Thanathorn will be indicted on the charge, a legal process that could eventuate in the party’s dissolution and nullification of its won votes.
Others have petitioned the Election Commission to dissolve the party for a host of incendiary accusations, some based in reality, others not.
The most recent controversy to explode around the party came after an interview in which Thanathorn proposed a re-trial of political leaders through a “fair and neutral” justice mechanism to forge national reconciliation among opposed political camps.
Mainstream and social media reports have since erupted with accusations that Future Forward aimed to rehabilitate the criminally convicted Thaksin, bringing him back to Thailand as a free man.
Thanathorn released a statement to dispel the claims, noting that he opposed a proposed 2013 Amnesty Bill in parliament that some suggested would have absolved Thaksin of his convictions. The bill, advanced by the then-ruling Peua Thai Party led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra, sparked anti-government protests that eventuated in the May 2014 coup.
Thanathorn, a billionaire ex-industrialist, admits that he took a major risk by entering politics in direct opposition to the junta. At 40-years-old, his reputation for forward-thinking contrasts with the junta’s core members, largely sexagenarians who rose slow and steady through the military’s ranks.
Thanathorn resigned his position as vice president of the Thai Summit Group, the largest auto parts manufacturer in Thailand, to start Future Forward. He also previously served on the board of the Matichon Group, a major Thai media company.
Prior to entering politics, Thanathorn was politically outspoken, participating in both anti-Thaksin “Yellow Shirt” and pro-Thaksin “Red Shirt” street protests over the years.
He also campaigned on behalf of the rural poor as a college student leader, winning him the nickname “billionaire serf” in nod to his privileged background and liberal political leanings. Thanathorn persistently insists he is not part of the Thai “elite.”
His party’s slick marketing, seen in Thanathorn’s new generation-tickling social media profile, aims to appeal to the five to six million eligible first time voters. Opinion polls, including those conducted recently on college campuses, suggest turnout will be high among youth voters looking for a break from both old establishment and Thaksin-aligned parties.
Whether Future Forward will be able to translate that support into parliamentary seats is an open question. Some have noted that Future Forward’s support may be limited to progressive pockets of urban areas, while old patronage networks and machine politicians continue to dominate the rural countryside on geographical lines.
The dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart has changed the electoral calculus somewhat, with some predicting Future Forward could pick up the votes the Thaksin-aligned party was poised to take.
Peua Thai and Thai Raksa Chart had strategically agreed not to field candidates in the same constituencies to avoid cannibalization and to take advantage of the constitution’s new electoral system that counts losing votes towards party list seats.
With Thai Raksa Chart dissolved and their candidates now ineligible to run, Future Forward is likely to benefit from migrating supporters looking for other anti-junta parties, particularly in urban areas where Peua Thai has not fielded candidates.
Future Forward’s most likely coalition partner is the coup-ousted Peua Thai, which has also positioned itself as strongly anti-junta and whose previous pro-Thaksin incarnations have won every general election since 2001.
The conservative Democrats are less likely to partner with Future Forward, although Thanathorn has said he is willing to join with the party under the right conditions. Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva recently announced that he would oppose Prayut’s return to the premiership, though it is even less likely his party would join a coalition with arch-rival Peua Thai.
All of this is contingent on Future Forward’s survival amid rising threats to its post-election existence. At the same time, by dissolving another anti-junta party, authorities would run the risk of sparking popular discontent inflamed on the notion that the polls are rigged in favor of the pro-junta Palang Pracharat.
Either way, it is unlikely that Thailand’s new generation of more progressive politics will so easily be dissolved. Indeed, big established parties are now advocating policies similar to those first advanced by Future Forward. Peua Thai, for example, is now also in favor of abolishing military conscription, while the Democrats say they, too, will seek constitutional amendments if voted into power.
And while the military can reach for legal and regulatory levers to snuff out anti-junta sentiment among opposed political parties like Future Forward, it is not clearly a campaign strategy that will win Thai hearts and minds.