Bangkok, Thailand – On a busy intersection outside the Thai capital Bangkok, a young woman with a heavy megaphone urged passersby to vote for her in Sunday’s general election, promising a “new kind of politics” that would curb the monarchy and the military’s stranglehold over the Southeast Asian country’s affairs.
“It’s time for change,” 30-year-old Chonthicha Jangrew said on Thursday, her voice slightly hoarse from months on the campaign trail.
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“We’ve been under military rule for nine years. It’s time to remove the military from Thai politics.”
Chonthicha, who goes by the name “Lookkate”, is at the vanguard of the youth-led Move Forward Party (MFP) that has energised Thailand’s voters, young and old alike. Analysts describe the party as “the new game” in Thailand, a country of 71 million, where the choice for voters has long been parties aligned with the royalist-military establishment or that of self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. The fierce power struggle between these two sides has kept the country at a political standstill for nearly two decades, with the governments of Thaksin and his sister, Yingluck, removed in military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
In Chonthicha’s constituency, Pathum Thani province, 41km (26 miles) north of Bangkok, the appetite for change appeared high.
Many people on their morning commute paused briefly, rolling down their windows to flash a thumbs up and offer words of support.
“Keep fighting”, one woman yelled from her car while another on a motorcycle stopped for a quick selfie and to drop off ice-cold drinks.
“It’s been nine years too long,” the woman on the motorcycle said, referring to the near-decade rule of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who, as army chief, led the 2014 coup. The retired general returned to power as the head of a civilian government in 2019, following elections the opposition claimed were rigged – allegations he denies.
Prayuth is seeking re-election again but his United Thai Nation (UTN) party is trailing in polls, coming in third in recent surveys. Support for the party is a fraction of that for the Thaksin-aligned frontrunner Pheu Thai party and the second-placed MFP.
While Pheu Thai has long held the lead in public surveys, the MFP has been closing the gap in recent weeks. Pheu Thai is now polling at about 38 percent, down from 47 percent in April, while MFP is at 34 percent, up from 21 percent earlier, according to surveys by the National Institute of Development Administration.
One large-scale poll published by The Nation newspaper last week showed MFP’s nominee for prime minister, 42-year-old Pita Limjaroenrat, emerging as the public’s favoured candidate for the post. The businessman had 29.37 percent of support compared with 27.55 percent for Pheu Thai’s candidate, the exiled Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra.
‘Turning the dial’
Observers credit the MFP’s popularity to its bold promises for reforms of the military and the monarchy. These include pledges to scrap the military-drafted constitution, abolish conscription, reduce the size of the armed forces and revise Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws, which punish insults to King Maha Vajiralongkorn with up to 15 years in jail.
Once taboo, the latter subject is now hotly debated among Thailand’s public, thanks to tens of thousands of young protesters who took to the streets across the country in 2020 and 2021, calling for curbs on the king’s powers.
“MFP is taking Thai politics to the next level by demanding structural reforms of established centres of power, particularly the military and the monarchy,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of international relations at the Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“It turns the dial in Thai politics from a battle between the conservative-royalist establishment revolving around the military, monarchy and judiciary on one hand and Thaksin’s political forces on the other. Thailand’s new battlefront and the battle cry of its younger generations is the reform and adjustment of the military and monarchy.”
Formed in 2020, the MFP is a successor to the now-disbanded Future Forward Party. Led by the car-parts billionaire Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, Future Forward stunned Thailand in 2019 when it became the third-largest party in the parliament, by winning some 81 seats in that year’s general election. Within months, however, the outspoken Thanathorn was disqualified from the House of Representatives on allegations that he violated an election law by illegally holding shares in a media company.
Then, in early 2020, Future Forward was dissolved altogether on accusations that it received an illegal loan from Thanathorn. The popular politician was also banned from politics for 10 years.
The dissolution of Future Forward was a key trigger for the student-led protests.
Defying COVID-19 restrictions and borrowing pop-culture themes from the Harry Potter and the Hunger Games series, tens of thousands of young protesters hit the streets in Bangkok and other cities, starting in June of 2020, calling for systemic democratic reforms and the revoking of lese majeste laws.
The authorities responded with force. Police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the huge crowds, and arrested dozens of prominent activists on sedition charges. At least 242 protesters also face charges of insulting the king.
The MFP was formed amid the chaos, with Pita – a Future Forward legislator – emerging as the new party’s leader. With its promise to amend the lese majeste laws, the MFP has attracted the backing of many activists in the student-led movement.
This includes Chonthicha, who faces prosecution on two counts of defaming the king as well as 26 other criminal charges over her role in the protests.
“When we had the youth uprising here in Thailand, young people were risking their own lives on the streets to talk about one of the most untouchable topics in Thailand – the reform of the monarchy and royal defamation,” she told Al Jazeera.
“But if you look back at the parliament at the time, there weren’t many politicians who tried to speak out about that. And that really disappointed me, a lot,” she said. “I want to become a legislator to bring all the demands from the streets into the parliament.”
Focus on democracy
Recent polls indicate MFP will probably win between 70 and 100 seats in Sunday’s election. Some 500 seats are up for grabs, including 400 that are directly elected and 100 that are allocated from party lists.
MFP’s popularity is set to deny Pheu Thai the landslide it has long been aiming for. The latter is currently on track to win about 220-240 seats in total, polls show.
Pheu Thai and MFP have indicated a willingness to form an alliance, but even with a combined total of 340 seats in the 500-member chamber, they will not be able to form government. This is because Thailand’s military-drafted constitution allows some 250 unelected Senators to take part in the vote for the prime minister.
Amid the projected shortfall, rumours have swirled that Pheu Thai may be considering a power-sharing agreement with smaller parties in the royalist-military establishment – namely the Palang Pracharat Party, led by Prayuth’s current deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan. These reports have not sat well with voters clamouring for change, likely contributing to MFP closing in on Pheu Thai’s lead in the polls.
On Thursday, during a party debate at the upscale Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok, it was MFP leader Pita who drew the most enthusiastic responses from the crowd. He was the only prime ministerial candidate to attend the four-party debate, with the others sending senior officials. The youthful audience erupted in deafening applause every time Pita spoke, but booed loudly when officials from Prayuth’s UTN and Prawit’s Palang Pracharat took centre stage.
Pita, smiling from ear to ear, pledged “full democracy” and equality for all in Thailand.
“Go vote for us on Sunday and give us the opportunity to do things that have never been done before,” he said. “Our main focus is the people. We will not ally with UTN or Palang Pracharath,” he announced to loud cheers.
The surge in support for MFP appears to have worried Pheu Thai.
The party – which has focused its campaign on stimulating Thailand’s pandemic-stricken economy – has now started to “include the words freedom, liberty in their campaign”, said Titipol Phakdeewanich, professor of political science at the Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand.
“So, unlike past elections, where economic policy has dominated the campaign, we are now seeing a focus on democracy,” he said.
Earlier this week, Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn even pledged not to cooperate with Prayuth and Prawit. However, she refused to commit to revising the lese majeste laws, only saying that her party would table the matter for discussion in parliament – a stance many see as a possible bid to reconcile with the palace.
This appears to have further turned off young voters, some 3 million of whom will be casting their votes for the first time on Sunday.
Lese Majeste laws
In Bangkok’s streets this week, many young voters told Al Jazeera they preferred the MFP over Pheu Thai because of the former’s strong stance on the lese majeste law, known as Article 112.
“MFP fights for democracy. They are clear in their stand,” said 27-year-old Patcharadanai “Fifi” Rawangsub in the working-class neighbourhood of Bang Na. “In 2020, we planted a seed for change and MFP is the party that will help see this change through.”
In the centre of Bangkok, 33-year-old Natpatsorn Tunyatarinun, who had dressed her poodle in the orange colours of MFP, echoed similar sentiments and said she was also voting for the party because of its promise to rewrite the constitution. Another group of four women, all in their 20s, also praised MFP’s “clear standpoint” on Article 112 and said they would be voting for the progressive party.
MFP’s popularity appears to have worried the conservative establishment, too.
On Wednesday, a candidate with the ruling Palang Pracharat petitioned the election commission, asking it to ban Pita from politics and claiming he holds undeclared shares in a media company – a similar charge to the one that led to the leader of Future Forward being disqualified from parliament in 2019.
Pita has denied any wrongdoing, claiming the company in question stopped broadcasting in 2007.
The politician’s future now depends on the outcome of Sunday’s vote, said Titipol of Ubon Ratchathani University. If Prayuth’s UTN and Prawit’s Palang Pracharat fail to cross the 25-seat threshold they require to nominate a prime minister, “they may try to attack Move Forward Party”. This could entice its legislators to abandon the party and switch allegiances, as some Future Forward politicians did in 2019, said Titipol.
“Money can do this in Thailand,” he said. “It is a very lucrative market. Once you are voted in as an MP, you can be a millionaire overnight.”
MFP candidates and supporters, however, appeared unfazed.
“We are not worried,” said Piyarat “Toto” Chongthep, an MFP candidate running for a seat in Bangkok. “We’ve already shown them we can come back stronger. Right now, MFP is much stronger than Future Forward.”
In Pathum Thani, Chonchita said MFP was in politics for the long haul.
“When I go and campaign, I meet kids, who are 10, 12, 15. They tell me they support Move Forward Party… When those kids grow up, they will change the country,” she said.
“Change is coming to Thailand soon,” she said. “Perhaps much sooner than we think.”