Bangkok, Thailand – At a crowded intersection outside the Thai capital Bangkok, a young woman with a heavy megaphone urged passers-by to vote for her in Sunday’s general election, promising a “new kind of politics” that would check the monarchy and military control of the Southeast Asian country. things.
“It’s time for a change,” Chunthisha Jangro, 30, said Thursday, her voice a little hoarse from months on the campaign trail.
We have been under military rule for nine years. It’s time to get the military out of Thai politics.”
Dubbed “Lookkate,” Chunthisha is at the forefront of the youth-led Move Forward Party (MFP) that has energized Thai voters, young and old alike. For far too long, the choice of voters in the country of 71 million was either parties aligned with the military monarchy or self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. Violent power struggles between the two sides kept the country at a political stalemate for nearly two decades, with the governments of Thaksin and his sister Yingluck deposed in military coups in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
In Chonthicha constituency, Pathum Thani province, 41 kilometers (26 miles) north of Bangkok, the desire for change seemed high.
Many people on their morning commute pause briefly, rolling to their windows to blink their thumbs up and offer words of support.
“Keep fighting,” one woman yelled from her car while another woman on a motorbike stopped to take a quick selfie and toss down iced drinks. It was 8:30 in the morning but the heat was already stifling.
“It’s been nine very long years,” said the woman on the motorbike, referring to the rule of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha who led the 2014 coup, as army chief. The retired general returned to power as head of a civilian government in 2019, after an election the opposition alleged was rigged — allegations he denies.
Prayuth is seeking re-election again, but his United Thai Nation party is trailing in opinion polls, placing third in recent polls. Support for the party is a fraction of the Thaksin-flanked leader Pheu Thai and the second-place MFP.
Pheu Thai has long held the lead in general polls, but the MFP has been closing the gap in recent weeks. Pheu Thai now polls 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 Management.
One Extensive survey MFP candidate for prime minister, 42-year-old Peta Limjaronrat, has emerged as the public’s favorite candidate for the post, The Nation reported last week. The businessman got 29.37 percent of the support compared to 27.55 percent for the candidate Pheu Thai, who is the 36-year-old exiled daughter of Thaksin, Pitungtarn Shinawatra.
“turn on dial”
Observers attribute the popularity of the multifunctional movement to its bold promises to reform the military and the monarchy. These include pledges to abolish a military-drafted constitution, abolish conscription, downsize the armed forces, and revise Thailand’s tough lese-majeste laws, which punishes insulting King Maha Vajiralongkorn with up to 15 years in prison.
The latter topic, once taboo, is now hotly debated among the Thai public, thanks to the 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.
The MFP is the only party that promises to meet the protesters’ demands.
“The multinational movement is taking Thai politics to the next level by demanding structural reforms to existing power centers, particularly the military and the monarchy,” said Thitinan Pongsudirak, a professor of international relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
“It shifts the dial in Thai politics from a battle between the conservative monarchical establishment revolving around the military, monarchy and judiciary on the one hand and the political forces of Thaksin on the other. The new battlefront in Thailand and the battle cry of the younger generations is to reform and reform the military and the monarchy.”
MFP was formed in 2020, and is the successor to the now-dissolved Future Forward Party. Led by auto billionaire Thanathorn Yuangruongruangket, Future Forward surprised Thailand in 2019 when it became the third largest party in parliament, winning nearly 81 seats in that year’s general election. Within months, however, Tannathorn was disqualified from the House of Representatives over allegations that he had violated election law by illegally owning shares in a media company.
Then, in early 2020, Future Forward is completely dissolved on charges that she took an illegal loan from Thanathorn. The famous politician was also banned from politics for 10 years.
The dissolution of Future Forward was a major impetus for the student-led protests.
Defying the restrictions of COVID-19 and borrowing pop culture themes from the Harry Potter games and hunger, tens of thousands of young demonstrators have taken to the streets in Bangkok and other cities, demanding systemic democratic reforms and curbs on the king’s powers.
The authorities responded forcefully. 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 are facing charges of violating lese majeste laws.
The MFP was formed in the midst of chaos, with PETA – the future legislator Forward – emerging as the party’s new leader.
With its promise to revise lese-majeste laws, the multinational movement has attracted the support of many activists in the student-led movement.
This includes Chuntisha, who faces trial on two counts of insulting the king as well as 26 other criminal charges over the protests.
“When we had the youth uprising here in Thailand, young people were risking their lives on the streets to talk about one of the most untouchable topics in Thailand – reforming the monarchy and defaming the monarchy,” she told Al Jazeera. But if you look at Parliament at the time, there weren’t a lot of politicians who tried to talk about it. And it really disappointed me, a lot,” she said.
She said, “I want to become a legislator to bring all the demands from the streets to Parliament.”
Focus on democracy
Recent polls indicate that the MFP will likely win between 70 and 100 seats in Sunday’s elections. There are about 500 seats up for election, including 400 directly elected and 100 allocated from party lists.
The popularity of the MFP is set to deny Pheu Thai the landslide it has long aimed for. Opinion polls show that the latter party is currently on track to win around 220-240 seats in total.
Pheu Thai and the MFP have indicated they are willing to form a coalition, but even with a total of 340 seats in the 500-member assembly, they will not be able to form a government. This is because the military-drafted constitution in Thailand allows about 250 unelected senators to vote on the prime minister.
Amidst the expected shortage, rumors circulated that Pheu Thai might be considering a power-sharing agreement with smaller parties in the royal military establishment—namely the Palang Pracharat party, led by Prawit’s incumbent deputy, Prawit Wongsuan. These reports did not sit well with voters demanding the change, and could potentially help the MFP get closer to Pheu Thai’s lead in the polls.
On Thursday, during a party debate at the upscale Siam Paragon Center in Bangkok, it was the MFP leader who drew the most enthusiastic response from the audience. He was the only candidate for prime minister who attended the four-way debate, while the others sent senior officials.
Every time Peteta spoke, the young crowd erupted into deafening applause, but he booed loudly when Prauit’s UTN and Palang Pracharat officials took center stage.
Smiling from ear to ear, Pita pledged “full democracy” and equality for all in Thailand.
He said, “Go vote for us on Sunday and give us a chance to do things we’ve never done before.” “Our main focus is people. We will not ally with UTN or Palang Pracharath,” he announced to loud cheers.
The increase in support for the party seems to have worried Pheu Thai.
Titipol Vakdewanich, a political science professor at Ubon Ratchathani University in eastern Thailand, said the party – which has focused its campaign on stimulating Thailand’s pandemic-stricken economy – has now begun “to include the words liberty and liberty in its campaign”.
“So, unlike previous elections, where economic policy dominated the campaign, we are now seeing an emphasis on democracy,” he said.
Earlier this week, Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn vowed not to team up with Prayut and Prayut. However, she refused to commit to revising the lese-majeste laws, saying only that her party would bring the matter up for debate in parliament – a position many see as a potential attempt to reconcile with the palace.
This appears to have caused a stir among young voters, some 3 million of whom will cast their ballots for the first time on Sunday.
Les Majestic Laws
On the streets of Bangkok this week, many young voters said they would prefer the MFP over Pheu Thai because of the former’s strong stance on the lese majeste law, known as Section 112.
“MFP fights for democracy. “They are clear on their position,” said Bacharadani “Vivi” Ruangsob, 27, in the working-class neighborhood of Bang Na. “In 2020, we have planted a seed for change, and the MFP is the party that will help see that change through.”
In central Bangkok, Natpatsorn Tunyatarinun, who wore her dog in an orange MFP, echoed similar sentiments and said she was also voting for the party because of its promise to rewrite the constitution. A group of four women, all in their 20s, hailed the MNC’s “clear view” on Article 112 and said they would vote for the Progressive Party.
The MFP’s popularity seems to have alarmed the conservative establishment, too.
On Wednesday, a candidate from the ruling Palang Pracharat Party petitioned the Election Commission, asking it to ban PETA from politics and claiming he owned undisclosed shares in a media company – a charge similar to the one that led to the Future Forward leader’s removal from parliament in 2019.
PETA has denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the company in question stopped broadcasting in 2007.
Titipol of Ubon Ratchathani University said the politician’s future now depends on the outcome of Sunday’s vote. If Prayuth’s UTN and Palang Prachat fail to pass the 25-seat threshold they require to appoint a prime minister, “they may try to attack the Move Forward party”. This could tempt lawmakers to abandon the party and switch allegiances, Titibol said, as some Future Forward politicians did in 2019.
“Money can do that in Thailand,” he said. “It’s a very lucrative market. Once you are voted Member of Parliament, you can become a millionaire overnight.”
However, the candidates and supporters of the MFP seemed unfazed.
“We’re not worried,” said Piyarat “Toto” Chongthep, an MFP candidate for a seat in Bangkok. “We have already shown them that we can come back stronger. Right now, the MFP is much stronger than Future Forward.”
In Pathum Thani, Chonchita said MFP has been in politics for a long time.
She said, “When I go and campaign, I meet kids who are 10, 12, 15 years old. They tell me they support Move Forward… When these kids grow up, they’re going to change the country.”
“Change is coming to Thailand soon,” she said. “Maybe much sooner than we think.”
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