Opinion: A year without a future

A year ago this week, the Future Forward Party was dissolved by the Constitutional Court. The party had exceeded electoral expectations and was poised to become a major voice for the opposition before it was silenced by the court. 

But even though the court again ruled against a challenger to the status quo, the status quo had been changed forever not just by Future Forward’s brief existence but also by the decision to dissolve the party. 

The dissolution of the Future Forward Party set into motion a series of events that culminated in widespread, nationwide protests that challenged the status quo and brought previously taboo topics into the realms of the political discussion. 

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul (R) and spokesperson Pannika Wanich (L) gather to attend a ceremony for the commencement of parliament in Bangkok on May 24, 2019. – Thailand’s constitutional court on May 23 suspended Thanathorn, the wildly popular leader of an anti-junta party, from parliament a day before it convenes, putting the brakes on his political career as it agreed to hear a case against him. (Photo by Panumas Sanguanwong / THAI NEWS PIX / AFP)

As a journalist who has covered this country for the past decade, there are topics being discussed openly now that I never thought I would see in my lifetime. 

Led by young voters, who overwhelmingly voted for the Future Forward Party, street protests have also confronted centuries old institutions whose powers just a few years prior seemed absolute and engrained. 

Led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokku, the Future Forward Party was supposed to be a progressive voice that made decisions based on ideals and not on potential monetary gains. 

The notion that political parties could be idealistic and pursue policy-based change were seen as such a threat by the courts and the conservative establishment that they deemed it necessary to ban the two men (and the party’s executive committee) from politics for ten years – and in the case of Thanathorn, prosecute him on criminal charges. 

However, if one asks any conservative Thai, they would agree that the decision to dissolve the party was a tactical mistake. 

In parliament, Future Forward would have been a thorn in the side of the government, sure, but so is the Move Forward Party (Future Forwards successor party). 

Instead by banning Future Forward, the courts unintentionally sparked a movement that has enfranchised the youth of the country, awoken their political ambitions and given them a target for their anger. 

Thai Future Forward Party’s supporters shout anti-government slogans while waiting for their leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit to arrive at Pathum Wan police station in Bangkok on January 10, 2020. – On January 21, judges of the Constitutional Court will rule on whether Future Forward, its frontman Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and other party executives carried out “actions” against the constitutional monarchy, the court said in a statement. It did not provide any details about those actions. (Photo by Mladen ANTONOV / AFP)

While there have been setbacks for Thanathorn and Co during the past year, the future is still bright for all the former leaders of the party and even the successor Move Forward Party. 

Thanathorn, Piyabutr and Panikka Wanich are all still very young relative to the political game. Their ban will eventually expire and they will make a return. 

Their Progressive Movement, which was set up to educate people politically, has consistently pushed the boundaries of political discussion while Move Forward continues to win hearts and minds of the youth with their conduct in parliament. 

That is not to say that it has all been smooth sailing. 

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Move Forward Party, its uncompromising idealism, has also become the party’s key weakness in its attempts to realize its ambitions. 

Rather than seeking allies, the party and the movement has attempted to forge ahead on its own. There has been a certain arrogance from within the Move Forward/Progressive Party side to thinks that idealism would be enough to win them votes and seats. Recent local elections show, however, that patronage networks and local considerations will still trump those ideals especially outside of Bangkok. 

The party would do well to make allies with older parties and try to establish and spread its own networks in the countryside. 

But there is more good news than bad news for the vestiges of the Future Forward Party. Pita, Thanathorn, Piyabutr, Panikka have all become household names. Their idealism has all been recognized as being genuine and they have, by a overwhelming margin, a grip on the future voters of the country. 

With a little more political savvy and a better allies, this group of young leaders could bring profound change to the country. 

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