- Future—Forward?The Past and Future of the Future Forward Party
In 2019, Thailand held its first election in eight years, a period that included five years of military rule. While Pheu Thai won the most seats—as it has in every election since 2001, under several different guises—in second and third place were two new parties. The second-placed party, Palang Pracharat (PPRP), was a party supported by the military regime, comprised largely of former members of parliament (MPs) who had been members of other political parties in the past. Palang Pracharat thus tended to replicate the campaign tactics that had previously secured victory for its MPs in past elections, while also relying on strong support from the state. Although Palang Pracharat garnered the most votes overall, it fell behind Pheu Thai in terms of parliamentary seats. In third place was another new party, Anakhot Mai (lit. New Future), known in English as the Future Forward Party.
Future Forward pursued a campaign strategy that was largely novel in Thai politics. Analysts have observed that the party carefully cultivated an image centred on its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, as representative of the party's aspirations. According to these analysts, many cast their votes for Future Forward candidates because of the image of the leader and the policies of the party, while the qualifications of the individual Future Forward candidates were of little import. Future Forward was also seen as banking its chances for electoral gold on the use of social media to court young voters.1
Some analysts would thus describe Future Forward as a new type of party: one built for social media, particularly the young people who spend significant time on it. If this is the case, we may expect to see substantial changes in how [End Page 355] other political parties operate, given the success of Future Forward. And since the government is composed of political parties, these changes may eventually reshape the political system in Thailand. In this chapter, I will examine the novelty of Future Forward, the role of Thanathorn, and the function of social media in the party's campaign. I will conclude by considering the future of Future Forward and whether it establishes a new model for political parties in Thailand.
The 2019 Election
The 24 March election was the first since 2011 and the 2014 military coup. The eight-year interval between the elections meant that over seven million of the fiftyone million eligible voters (around 13 per cent) were new voters with weak party loyalties, thus forming a large number of potentially persuadable voters. With a constitution carefully designed to benefit small and medium-sized parties, eighty parties registered to contest the election, nominating a total of 13,310 candidates between them.2 Major parties include the Pheu Thai party, the pro-Thaksin vehicle that had, in different incarnations through the years, won the most seats in every election since 2001; the Democrat party, which has a strong base in the South and in Bangkok; and Bhumjaithai, a regional party with deep roots in the lower North East. Among the new parties were the pro-junta Palang Pracharat party, and Future Forward.
The major political parties in the 2019 election can be loosely categorized into three types. The first type consists largely of powerful local politicians, who are generally former MPs with extensive ties to their local community. These powerful local figures leverage their strong community ties to gain votes. They often rely heavily on traditional patron-client relationships, which was a style of campaigning common in the 1980s and 1990s. The junta-backed Palang Pracharat was the most prominent example of such a party. Needing resources to maintain their hold on power, many local notables were enticed to join the government-affiliated party in order to gain access to resources that could sustain their patronage networks. Having been cut off from government largesse since the coup, many of these local politicians would have otherwise struggled to be electorally competitive if they were left to rely on their own resources.
The second type of party also consisted primarily of powerful local politicians, but who were running under a...