Chiang Mai, Thailand – Last month’s historic election in Thailand saw the progressive Move Forward Party claim the most seats in parliament and looks set to usher in a new generation of young politicians – assuming the conservative establishment accepts the results.
A number of hurdles remain for Move Forward to form a government with its main coalition partner, the populist pro-democracy party Pheu Thai.
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But the results alone show a radical shift in the country’s political landscape, with voters now demanding a total overhaul of the political system, which has for years been dominated by the military and monarchy.
The northern Chiang Mai province is a case in point.
Traditionally a Pheu Thai stronghold, Move Forward took seven out of 10 seats this year, campaigning on a platform of deeper reforms. The results also show a generational turnover and increased gender diversity. Seven of the 10 candidates elected – including five women – are in their 30s.
Ruengrawee Pichaikul, director of the Gender and Development Research Institute, says 96 women were elected this year, representing 19 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, slightly more than in the 2019 election.
She notes Move Forward led the pack with 36 women elected, while Pheu Thai was close behind with 29.
“It’s a new generation, a new paradigm shift,” Ruengrawee said, adding that the more Thailand democratises, the more women will get involved in politics. “If there is a more open society women will have more chances. Compared to military rule this is very, very different. In the [military-appointed] Senate, only 6 percent are women.”
She says women still face several challenges in politics, including “sexual violence”, giving an example of a male candidate photoshopping a female rival’s photo onto a nude model to “damage and discredit her popularity”.
“Most of them get bullied through social media, like Facebook,” she added. “Last election was even worse. Parties used women as a sex object, only nominated candidates that are beautiful and talk about her physical appearance more than her brain or the issues she’s fighting for.”
Ruengrawee says she has been especially pleased to see that young men from Move Forward had made gender equality a key talking point.
“We believe in the new generation of voters. I think it’s going to be better, unless there is some kind of regime change,” she said.
Such an outcome, of course, cannot be ruled out.
The last democratically elected government – a Pheu Thai administration – was overthrown in a coup in 2014, ushering in nine years of military-backed rule.
Here are three women who will be taking their seats in the Thai parliament when it convenes in the next few weeks.
Phuthita Chaianun, Move Forward Party
Phuthita Chaianun met Al Jazeera at a bookstore where she took a seminar on democracy 12 years ago while studying at Chiang Mai University.
The course sparked the 36-year-old’s interest in politics, culminating last month with her election to parliament as a representative for Move Forward. While she is happy with the result and optimistic about the direction Thailand is moving in, the trials of her years as an activist have taken their toll.
“It was hard to watch my friends get sent to jail and flee the country, or disappear,” she said, referring to fellow pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit, who was abducted in Cambodia in 2020 and never seen again.
Phuthita has had her own run-ins with the law, including spending a night in jail after protesting the anniversary of the 2014 coup. While she said she was never afraid, she grew disillusioned, because of divisions in the pro-democracy movement and a sense of futility.
“I had to take a break for my mental health. I had become hopeless about the state of democracy in Thailand,” she said. She moved to Shanghai for about two years to study Chinese before the rise of the Future Forward Party rekindled her spirit.
The predecessor of Move Forward, Future Forward, came out of nowhere to finish third in the 2019 elections before being dissolved and its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit banned from politics on charges of financial misconduct, which supporters and rights groups condemned as politically motivated.
“Future Forward and Thanathorn gave me hope again. When I saw Thanathorn, I wanted to come back and fight,” said Phuthita.
She moved to Bangkok after the 2019 election, serving as an aide in Future Forward before returning to Chiang Mai when COVID-19 hit.
“I never wanted to be a politician,” Phuthita said, but when she became pregnant with her first child, her choice became “completely clear”.
“I realised I needed to make a better society for my children.”
Now that she is in parliament, Phuthita says she will support Move Forward’s plans to rewrite the military-drafted constitution and address income inequality. And on a more personal level, she hopes to “help my friends who are facing politically motivated charges” and “revive justice in Thailand”.
Phuthita says she also plans to work with other female politicians to introduce a quota for women in parliament. Gender perceptions in Thailand are changing, she says.
“Before they thought of women politicians as just a flower, but now it’s clear Thai people trust us,” she said, though problems still persist.
“A man from another political party even called me a housemaid to try to discredit me and said I’m just a shadow of my husband,” she said. “I think being a woman and a mother is a strength. I’m gentle and genuine.”
She credits Move Forward’s victory in Chiang Mai to its more radical calls for reform.
“People understand that populist policies don’t work any more. They understand the economy and politics should go together. The way to fix the problems in the economy is to fix the entire political structure,” she said.
Describing herself as an introvert, Phuthita says she likes art, peace and quiet. “I like to stay home with my family,” she said. “If I wasn’t a politician, I’d like to have my own art gallery.”
But she has little time to pursue her passions. She joined a civil society organisation working on mining and the environment straight out of university and has dedicated most of her time since to human rights and activism.
While she previously said there was nothing to be happy about during the troubled years following the coup, she now sees some light at the end of the tunnel.
“I feel more powerful and hopeful and happy. I can see something is going to change,” she said.
Even if the establishment finds a way to block Move Forward from forming a government, she thinks something has been unleashed that cannot be contained again.
“It’s Thailand. Anything is possible. But the majority of Thai people have now become aware.”
Srisopha Kotkhamlue, Pheu Thai
Srisopha Kotkhamlue, 30, sat down with Al Jazeera the day before her master’s exam in public administration. The next day, the energetic Pheu Thai MP-elect passed the test and flew back to Chiang Mai in time for the evening’s LGBTQ pride parade.
The daughter of a prominent politician, Srisopha had long eyed a career in politics and even considered running in the 2019 election.
“I was really young, so I decided to spend some time learning from people with more experience,” she said, explaining that she served as a secretary for the Chiang Mai provincial administration and team manager for the local football team, Chiang Mai United.
“I needed to work with a lot of men, which wasn’t always easy, but I learned a lot of leadership skills,” she said.
Srisopha was elected to represent Chiang Mai’s southernmost district 10, a rugged mountainous area mostly made up of protected forests and where local people often have no property documents. She hopes to change this, saying that granting property rights will help people become more secure and will protect the forest better, since there will be more clearly demarcated property lines for farms.
“Some people think a woman going to the forest by herself is dangerous, but I don’t mind,” she said.
Srisopha says she has had experiences with people not taking female politicians as seriously as the men or assuming they are less intelligent or weak, but believes “the majority of people have changed their perspective of women”.
Like Phuthita, she sees her gender as a strength, saying constituents may find women more personable and “easier to talk to” about their problems. “We’re better at understanding how people feel,” she said.
Being the young daughter of a prominent male politician also poses some challenges, but Srisopha remains unintimidated.
“At first, it was hard because people have their own idea of me because of their opinion of my father,” she said. “When you have no accomplishments yet, of course, they will think that way.”
But she says as she continues her political career, she is establishing her own brand.
“Work will prove everything,” she said. “I just have to be even better than him.”
While Srisopha won her race by a comfortable margin, the election was disappointing for the party as a whole, particularly in Chiang Mai, which she said should be a lesson.
Srisopha, who has a degree in economics from Kingston University in the United Kingdom, says while she believes Pheu Thai is the best party to address Thailand’s economic problems, voters feel “that’s not enough”.
“Not just the economy, we need to focus more on human rights,” she said, including issues like same-sex marriage, which Srisopha says she “fully supports”.
If Pheu Thai had to lose, she said she was happy Move Forward won, rather than a military-backed party.
“It shows Chiang Mai has democracy in its heart.”
Karanic Chantada, Move Forward
Karanic Chantada spoke to Al Jazeera at a café next to the pharmacy where she worked before becoming a candidate for Move Forward.
After pharmacy school, the 32-year-old worked as a flight attendant for China Airlines for three years, based in Bangkok, before moving back to Chiang Mai when she was laid off during the pandemic. Her return to pharmacy work during COVID-19 was a key part of her political awakening.
“During COVID-19, there was a shortage of hygienic products like face masks and the prices of everything shot up. Before, it was 100 baht [$2.9] for a box of face masks but it increased to 700-1,000 baht [$20-$28],” she said.
When senior government officials were implicated in stockpiling and price gouging, it enraged the nation, including Karanic, who was motivated to start volunteering with Move Forward.
“I was part of the staff that helped organise and promote events like public debates and speeches,” she said. The process of moving from a volunteer to a candidate included an interview and a personal essay.
“You don’t need to be a rich person or a powerful businessman to become a candidate for Move Forward,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, Karanic says the most important issue to her is improving social welfare in Thailand, particularly public health services.
“Everyone, whether they are rich or poor, should be able to get proper welfare from the government instead of having to put aside money in case they need healthcare,” she said.
Karanic says while she had experienced some “sexual harassment” on the campaign trail, mostly from older men who were rude or made “bad jokes”, the situation was improving.
She thinks youth is more important than gender. “As a young person, I can be more adaptable to different groups of people and communicate with young people and elders in a more informal way,” she said, adding that there is a challenge in balancing professionalism with being approachable.
She also attributes the election result to the will of the new generation.
“Young people are not under the traditional hierarchy system, they’re not afraid to ask questions, to demand their rights or to give their opinions,” she said.
Karanic said in her free time she likes to go jogging and read Thai fiction, but when asked what she was currently reading, she laughed and pulled out a thick binder on constitutional law and protocols for new MPs.
She says she only intends to serve for one or two terms before letting “fresh blood” take over.
“I want politicians to act as volunteers, or servants of the people, not to come to parliament for personal benefits or business connections,” she said. “Move Forward is fighting against this type of political culture.”