OPINION: Is Thailand’s political future with the Future Forward Party or the military?

It has been almost a year since the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military group that led the 2014 Thai coup d’état, allowed the country to hold general elections.

To a certain extent, the elections were only a symbolic return to democracy because Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, the 2014 coup leader, remains in power.

There is an undeniably cozy relationship between his government and the military that allows him to maintain his control over the nation. 

This week Thai political discourse has been dominated by speculations on whether the Constitutional Court of Thailand will rule to dissolve the Future Forward Party. The country’s Election Commission (EC) has requested the Court to dissolve the party because of a 191.2 million-baht loan from its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, which the EC alleges is a violation of the Political Party Act.

Regardless of whether the party is dissolved or survives these legal attacks from the military and the establishment, democratic progress in Thailand will very much depend on the dedication of the younger generations to push for more liberty and freedom in the country.

The 2019 election results delivered an unexpected outcome for the NCPO. The impressive debut of the Future Forward Party, which earned over 6.3 million votes, enabled the party to become the third-largest political party in Thailand’s House of Representatives. The party has largely been welcomed by younger votes, gaining significant momentum since its establishment in 2018. It has likewise come under scrutiny. It was put under surveillance by the NCPO and military intelligence, as well as criticised by the conservative establishment. 

Thailand’s post-March 2019 election political landscape raised concerns over the establishment and military’s ability to maintain its grip.

Their decades-long war against democracy is now not only with the Pheu Thai Party, the incumbent party since 2001 closely linked to Thaksin Shinawatra, but also with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward Party.

The Future Forward Party has been demonised by the government and its military ally, partly because of its support for greater liberties and freedoms in Thai society, as well as embracing social diversity.

As a consequence, the party has been placed on the opposite spectrum of the establishment’s sense of national identity  – “Thainess” – and labelled as a potential threat to the Thai national security and unity. At the same time, the party’s main supporters are portrayed as politically naïve and easily brainwashed by the Future Forward Party.

If the party is dissolved, we will likely observe a strong reaction from younger voters, especially on social media sites like Twitter, where netizens have fallen in love with the hashtag revolution. And while we do not yet foresee large-scale street protests, the party’s dissolution will likely re-energise the party’s momentum. 

Nevertheless, the party’s survival cannot entirely be ruled out, especially if the government and the military assess it to be in their interest to keep the Future Forward Party in the House. Not because they believe in democracy, but because they may be convinced that keeping the Future Forward Party in a political game will constrain it more than dissolution. After all, the military did design the rules of this game with its constitution.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, an equal playing field is unlikely to occur because of his extensive control and reinforcement over Thailand’s political narratives. 

Although it is far-fetched to classify all young voters as supporters of the Future Forward Party, there are few alternative parties that reject military control and promote liberty and freedom as vigorously.

A significant number of younger voters see the Future Forward Party as the primary party to push Thailand towards full-fledged democracy. If the party is dissolved it may emotionally affect this demographic, but it will hardly kill their hopes and desires for a more democratic Thailand. 

The dissolution of the Future Forward Party will demonstrate the inability or unwillingness of the military and its supporters to “win” in a democracy where everyone is expected to have equal rights and freedom.

But if the Future Forward Party survives this upcoming judgment, it may be a sign of the military and the establishment’s confidence in maintaining their grip on power.

We have seen this so-called “Thai-style democracy”, repeatedly introduced by the military over the last one hundred years in order to undermine the crucial democratic principles of liberty and freedom. 

The military has made it clear that it will not depart from politics. Only by fighting for liberty and freedom will we rid ourselves of their influence.

Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University. He is currently a Research Associate at Centre of South East Asian Studies, SOAS University of London. 

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