Earlier this month, thousands of Thais rallied in Bangkok behind the popular leader of the anti-establishment Future Forward Party (FFP). It was the first major demonstration since elections earlier this year returned a junta-aligned government to power.
In March, the Thai people went to the polls to replace the military government that had been in power since the 2014 coup. Over 75 parties contested, including the two major parties and several new parties. One of these newcomers, the Palang Pracharat Party, emerged from within the military forces and was formed to carry on the junta’s work.
The election’s most notable feature was the strong vote for a second new party, the FFP, established in March 2018. The FPP can attribute its success mainly to young Thais fed up with the military’s role in politics. In reaction, the government has tried by hook or by crook to demolish the FFP. However, a victory for the government is likely to be pyrrhic.
After the 2014 coup, a military junta governed Thailand for five years. By the beginning of 2019, the junta had put in place a new constitution, formed a new party to contest in the March elections, and prepared a list of appointees to the Senate.
The upshot of the elections for the lower house was that five parties shared the majority of the 500 seats between them – the two biggest winners being Pheu Thai with 136 and the junta-aligned Palang Pracharat Party with 116. The FFP had the third-highest tally of 81 seats. The Democrat party fared very poorly.
— Bloomberg (@business) March 22, 2019
After lengthy negotiations, the Palang Pracharat Party succeeded in forming a coalition with some of the smaller parties. Given these results and the make-up of the Senate, and given that the prime minister under the new constitution is elected by members of the House and the Senate together, the nomination of the leader of the junta, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, as prime minister simply fell into place.
Future Forward Party’s Genesis and Success
By 2019, large sections of the Thai population had little appetite for the military junta. Since the previous elections, 7.1 million young people, constituting about a seventh of the entire electorate, had become eligible to vote for the first time in 2019. The military government did not bother to address them.
The FFP, on the other hand, sought support for new policies and politics. The party presented to young, urban, and educated Thais a different vision of how politics could work. It could be a lot cleaner, and it could transcend the class politics reflected in the “red shirt-yellow shirt” divide in which red represents rural smallholders and workers and yellow stands for urban, Sino-Thai capitalists.
The military and its supporters among the owners of Thailand’s largest businesses began to be very worried as the pre-election polls charted the FFP’s rising popularity.
Military Fights Back
As a respected Southeast Asian journalist reported in Asia Times earlier this month, the new government has garnered enormous political and financial support among Thailand’s five largest companies and formed with them an arrangement of great mutual benefit.
The journalist quoted FFP co-founder Khun Thanathorn as saying that these and other companies have operated within market structures that give “a few families rent-seeking opportunities to create an enormous amount of wealth.” Little wonder that Prime Minister Chan-ocha has set out to destroy the leadership of the FFP and the party itself.
The weapon of choice is a combination of the Election Commission (EC) and regime-friendly Constitutional Court. The compositions of both are the result of decisions of the military government in power up to the elections.
The matters before the EC include the charge that Thanathorn did not divest himself of shareholdings before seeking election to the parliament, as required, and that he breached a law in respect to political donations by lending the FFP a much larger amount of money than the maximum permissible amount of a donation.
The EC found Thanathorn guilty on the matter of his alleged failure to divest in time, and he was subsequently banned from holding parliamentary office. It has yet to rule on the case of the loan.
However, the EC appears to be demanding documentation with an unnecessary degree of urgency and has imposed unusually harsh requirements on the FFP and its leaders. If Thanakorn is eventually found guilty regarding the loan, he will face a long term of imprisonment and a hefty fine. The EC has an even bigger outcome in its sights, though: the dissolution of the Future Forward Party itself.
The present haste of the EC prompted the major Thai English-language newspaper, the Bangkok Post, to warn the EC on December 10 that “[it] must realize that many people see its previous conclusions on many politically motivated cases as a mockery of the law.”
Demonstration at Siam Square
In reaction to the pressure, the FFP called on its supporters to form a “flash mob” on Saturday, December 14. Several thousand people showed up, and Thanakorn has promised more demonstrations later.
In the meantime, however, there is a move to impose penalties on the FFP for its organization of the demonstration because no permit was granted. Additionally, it is claimed that a speaker spoke derogatorily of the “higher institution,” referring to the monarch. If found guilty of insulting the monarchy, the speaker may be incarcerated for many years. But that is a different story of this so-called “democracy.”
If Thailand’s government were to set out to make enemies of the country’s savvy young voters, it could hardly do better than it is doing at the moment.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.