- By Jonathan Head
- South East Asia correspondent
In a cramped shophouse in one of Bangkok’s nondescript outer suburbs, a small group of volunteers feverishly pack leaflets in preparation for the daily ritual of canvassing for votes.
This is the decidedly low-rent campaign headquarters in Bang Bon for Move Forward, the most radical party contesting this month’s general election in Thailand.
Pacing among them is the parliamentary candidate, Rukchanok “Ice” Srinork, a 28-year-old woman brimming with energy, who constantly flicks through her social media pages. Ice’s team have bought cheap bicycles, and for weeks now they have been using them, in brutally hot weather, to reach out to residents in the smallest alleys of Bang Bon.
Ice is one of a slate of young, idealistic candidates for Move Forward who have joined mainstream politics in the hope that this election allows Thailand to break the cycle of military coups, street protests and broken democratic promises in which the country has been trapped for two decades.
Move Forward is the successor party to Future Forward, which exploded onto the political stage in Thailand five years ago.
It contested the first election permitted since a coup in 2014 deposed the then-elected government. Future Forward was something new, promising sweeping changes to Thailand’s political structures, including limiting the power of the armed forces, and, more quietly, suggesting changes to the monarchy, then a strictly taboo topic.
“Their agenda was basically about taking Thailand’s future back from the powers-that-be,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, from the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “In this century young people have had to live in a country that has been lost to an endless cycle – we had two coups, two new constitutions, a series of judicial dissolutions of parties. I think the younger demographic got sick and tired of it. And Future Forward tapped into that sentiment.”
It stunned conservatives by winning the third largest share of seats in the 2019 election. Thailand’s royalist establishment, a network of military officers, senior bureaucrats and judges, responded as it has to similar threats in the past – it had Future Forward dissolved by the Constitutional Court, and banned its leaders from politics. The party lost about one-third of its MPs, and its replacement, Move Forward, became a lonely opposition voice in parliament.
Yet in recent weeks the party’s popularity in opinion polls has been surging again, alarming rivals. Many polls put its leader, the telegenic and articulate Pita Limjaroenrat, as the preferred candidate for prime minister.
That popularity is changing the reception Ice and her bicycling volunteers are getting in Bang Bon, traditionally the fiefdom of a powerful family from a rival party. People are genuinely interested in what these youngsters have to offer. Even older residents talk about the need for big changes in Thailand.
Ice herself epitomises this shifting political landscape. She admits she used to be a die-hard royalist, who cheered on the military coup and admired the man who led it, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is still prime minister today.
“I think that I’m doing this partly out of feeling guilty that I was part of a movement that encouraged the coup, a crime against 70 million people,” she says. “At that time, I agreed with it and thought it was the right answer for the country. But later I asked myself, how could that happen? How could this nation support a freaking coup? And that’s when I became taa sawang.”
“Taa Sawang” – literally, “bright eyes” – is the phrase adopted by younger Thais to describe their being enlightened about previously taboo topics, in particular the monarchy. It was a watchword of the mass protest movement that erupted after Future Forward was banned in 2020, at a stroke disenfranchising millions of younger voters who were hungry for change.
And that movement, while it was eventually crushed through the extensive use of the draconian lese majeste law, shattered the taboo, by calling openly, for the first time, for the powers and financing of the monarchy to be accountable. Three years later, Move Forward’s support for royal reform no longer seems so shocking. And more Thais seem willing to back the party’s broader agenda for change.
Chonticha “Kate” Jangrew’s journey has been from the opposite direction. Her “taa sawang” moment was much earlier, when she still a student.
She was among a very small group of dissidents willing to risk arrest by protesting against the 2014 coup that Ice was still cheering. She also joined the much bigger, monarchy-focused protests of 2020. But now she has decided to give up her activist life, and run as a candidate for parliament, also for Move Forward. “I believe to achieve the changes we want we have to work in parliament as well as on the streets,” she says.
Her pitch to voters in Pathum Thani, another district outside Bangkok, is unusual. “I have 28 criminal charges against me,” she tells them – two are under the lese majeste law, which carries a penalty of 15 years in prison for each. “But that shows you I am brave enough to speak out when I see something that needs to happen for our country.”
Even older voters seem charmed by her youthful sincerity. Almost everyone at the market where she appeared said they liked Move Forward, because they represented change, and would stick to their promises.
For all the buzz generated by Move Forward, few believe they can win enough seats to form a government. The revised electoral system is less favourable to them than last time. And Thailand is an aging society, so voters under 26 years old – Move Forward’s natural supporters – make up less than 15% of the electorate.
But if the party’s current surge in support holds until polling day, they could do well enough to be part of a coalition government, or a strong opposition voice. Then the inevitable question arises – will the establishment reach into its arsenal of extra-parliamentary schemes to disable the reformists once again?
“The Move Forward party’s agenda is an existential challenge to the established centres of power – the military, monarchy, judiciary, the institutions and players that have run Thailand for decades,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak.
“Right now, they will probably wait for the poll results. But after that, the conservative establishment will have to ask themselves, what else they can do? They dissolve parties, but they come back, even stronger. They have military coups, but eventually they have to go back to a constitution. And even though they rewrite the electoral rules in their favour, their parties still lose the election.”