Upstart Thai party redraws political map, gives glimpse of future

By AFP   March 27, 2019 | 08:23 am GMT+7
Upstart Thai party redraws political map, gives glimpse of future
The tone of Future Forward's campaign, led by scion of the Thai Summit auto-parts group Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was in stark contrast to more staid rivals, engaging in what amounted to a conversation with his fans over Twitter and rallies. Photo by AFP

Dynamised by a telegenic billionaire, staffed by trendy graduates and powered by the millennial vote, Future Forward (FFP) has emerged as a new force in Thai politics.

It carries a mission to restructure an unequal economy and take an axe to the army's influence.

At FFP's headquarters in Bangkok the euphoria was barely concealed as early results from Sunday's election showed it on track to 30 lower house seats, with a proportional party list system likely to reward their five million-plus ballots with dozens more.

If the results play out -- and the menace of legal troubles fades for Future Forward -- it will be Thailand's third largest party, barely a year after being formed.

Its agenda is radical; re-writing the constitution to excise the military from politics, slashing the defence budget, ending conscription and addressing Thailand's chasmic inequality.

And its 40-year-old figurehead, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, scion of the Thai Summit auto-parts group, says he is in it for the long haul.

"The party was not formed just to run in this election," he told AFP, asserting "our end game" is to help Thailand return to a democracy.

"Our agenda is the public agenda... we are here because we want to push for genuine change."

Thanathorn knocks back a mug of water handed to him by a young aide, wearing a Future Forward t-shirt and brogues -- without socks -- like several other staffers.

Despite his vast wealth, which he put in a blind trust before the polls, Thanathorn's pull comes from a mix of corruscating takedowns of the ruling junta and a deft common touch.

The tone of his campaign was in stark contrast to more staid rivals, engaging in what amounted to a conversation with his fans over Twitter and rallies.

At headquarters there is a notable absence of the deferent "wais" of respect among the junior staff -- and none of the hushed reverence normally associated with corridors of Thai power.

Instead, aides buzz around laptops scribbling totals from constituencies, wide-eyed at the party's unexpected momentum.

Some just recently graduated, reflecting the hitherto untapped demographic of millions of millennials.

Many were first time voters, wearied by Thailand's carousel of coups and short-lived governments and a political stage populated by ageing generals and grandstanding politicians who refuse to exit.

"The new division is between the people who support the military regime and the people who oppose the military regime," Thanathorn added.

'We will be relentless'

Their policy platform is more far-reaching than Pheu Thai, which is on course to be the largest lower house party despite being several million votes down on the last election in 2011.

It is still linked to ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive 69-year-old who lives in self-exile but still plays the political game from overseas.

Future Forward scooped up seats across the country, in part aided in their quest for proportional party list seats by the dissolution of the Shinawatra-linked Thai Raksa Chart party.

It was taken out by a court just weeks before the election for running a princess as candidate for premier.

"People voted strategically," said Napisa Waitoolkiat, political scientist from Naresuan University.

For the pro-democracy camp "why not vote for somebody new?", she added.

With a firm bridgehead established, Future Forward says they are ready to join an anti-junta government.

But Thanathorn, for now, insists he will not run for premier.

Equally, party officials say they are ready to menace the military from opposition, where their youth and progressive agenda are likely to cast the generals and bureaucrats from junta-allied Phalang Pracharat in a bad light.

"FFP is definitely the new force of Thai politics," said 20-year-old student Chayata Sripanich, who voted for the party.

It has given Thais "a new lens on things... that politics and elections are to be discussed with policies and agendas rather than focusing purely on politicians," she added.

But Thai politics is also a treacherous space, especially for newcomers with big ideas.

Party leaders including Thanathorn have already been targeted with legal cases over petty alleged misdemeanours that can result in political bans for individuals and whole parties.

With the junta and big business in its sights, Future Forward is also likely to make powerful enemies.

But Thanathorn is confident his narrative of a country in need of structural surgery will take root.

And he is unequivocal that they are entering Thailand's bear-pit politics with teeth bared.

"We will work relentlessly, continuously," he says.

 
 
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