Future Forward Party prime ministerial candidate Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit finished a promising second place in a May poll of Thai university students taken barely a month after his party formed.
One problem. He finished a distant second to “don’t care,” the choice of some 70% of respondents at the time.
That’s something the auto-parts kingpin and novice politico — whose party is aiming squarely at the millennial vote – was looking to change as he marched through the heart of the Siam Square shopping district on Saturday, the second time his “new blood” party has taken to the capital’s streets in as many weeks.
“Though [Siam Square] isn’t as busy as it used it be, it still leads the way in terms of fashion innovation. That’s why we chose this place to communicate with the new generation and like-minded citizens,” the 39-year-old Thanathorn, still sweaty from the two-hour march, told Coconuts Bangkok in explaining the location choice.
A newcomer to the scene, the Future Forward Party launched in March this year, two weeks after Thailand’s Election Commission opened registration for new parties, and has since gained support mostly among younger generation Thais.
It’s worth noting that while 70.6 percent of the 2,175 students interviewed by the Thai Academic Network of Civil Rights in May said they “don’t care,” 35 percent also said: “anyone but current junta chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha.”
“They’re honestly the best option right now,” two women in their early 20s who requested anonymity said of Future Forward when Coconuts visited the rally on Saturday.
While they identified education reform and equality as the main reasons they support the fledgling party, others in the crowd weren’t thinking in quite such high-minded terms.
“Wow, his face is so clear,” one attendee could be overheard saying as Thanathorn marched by.
It’s the kind of statement that critics of the nascent party have pounced on, questioning whether or not Thai millennials, who in the past have notoriously avoided the topic of politics, are savvy enough to understand the issues.
A nascent platform
Policy, to this point, has not been front and center, a fact party spokeswoman Pannika Wanich says can be attributed to a ban on campaigning that has been in place since the junta took power in May 2014
Details that will fill in the parties’ broad strokes appeals to social justice are coming in December, she said, when the party plans to hold an event to unveil their first set of policy statements, assuming the junta will lift the political ban as promised.
Saturday’s rally, she noted, was not a campaign event, but a recruitment drive for party membership, something permitted since the junta relaxed the ban back to some degree in September.
“The more people in our party, the more legitimacy we have, because a few thousand votes will not represent the true voice of the public,” she said.
“Right now, we have about 20,000-something members after about five weeks of recruiting, which we consider to be satisfactory work. However, we are still looking for more. We aim to have about 35,000 party members by the election.”
The Future Forward policy platform that eventually emerges will be the product of a bottom-up approach, Pannika said on the sidelines of Saturday’s march.
“Over the past few months, we’ve travelled to many provinces and rural areas, not to campaign but to develop a thorough understanding of citizen’s problems, desires, and their opinions about solutions,” she said.
“Each district of every province may have different problems — or not. But we want to know that for fact rather than make assumptions.”
The party’s first set of policies – funneled through a team of academics, researchers and economists — will address finance, poverty, and the agriculture industry, which was identified by a recent Dusit Poll survey as the number one concern Thais hope to see addressed.
Though intentionally avoiding specifics, Pannika said their first financial policies will focus largely on the agriculture, transportation, and education sectors.
“We also have plans for the railway industry. Not just in terms of transportation but industrialization. We have plans to build trains within the country, which will create 150,000 new job opportunities,” she said, adding that those infrastructure investments will pump about THB500 billion (US$152 million) back into the economy.
Also high on the agenda is land reform.
“In some big provinces like Ubon Ratchathani or Nongkhai, 80 to 90 percent of land belongs to the Agricultural Land Reform Office [under the Government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperative], which means … [private citizens] essentially can’t do anything with this land,” a fact she said left it economically unproductive.
On the education front, which Coconuts’ informal survey of those gathered in Siam Square suggested was a top priority, the major goals are building a more responsive system and cutting red tape.
“Examinations and curriculum don’t align with knowledge and skills they need for their daily lives,” was a common refrain from students, Pannika said – along with, unsurprisingly, a litany of petty rules involving haircuts and uniforms that students feel are out of date.
Teachers are also having their efficiency taxed by tasks that often have no pragmatic use, she said.
“Teachers say there are a lot of administrative demands, which take up about 60 to 70 percent of their time… How they can give quality lessons like that?” she asked.
“The structure of Thai education, like our bureaucracy, is inaccessible right now… the curriculum doesn’t reflect the needs or each region and the power is centralized. This means teachers must try to please that centralized power rather than the students or parents.”
For all ages
In what’s expected to be a large field of contenders this February, how much Future Forward’s youth-oriented push will play to the broader populace remains to be seen, though our amble through the parade area revealed at least a few older supporters.
“It’s nice to see a politicians be so hands on and come talk to us here,” said a septuagenarian market vendor. “I don’t know much about their policies so I can’t say I’ll support them but they definitely peaked my interest.”
Another had already made the leap to membership.
“As someone in his 60s, and obviously a member of the old generation, I joined the Future Forward Party because I witnessed years of how the junta and greedy politicians abuse their citizens,” said retired Pol.Sub-Lt. Monton Brokrai, who used to be stationed at Bagkok’s Khlongtan Police Station.
“I think this party is truly change we’ve been waiting for. They have clear goals to distribute power and establish equality. They want to reform health care and education.”
As the event was wrapping up an hour later, party leader Thanathorn said he regarded the parade and its stated goal of “shifting Bangkok” a success.
“I know a lot of the new generation have lost faith in the country’s politics because, in the past, it has been dominated by money and a select number of people in the elite but that’s what we’re trying to change.”
“Politics affects us every day, from the moment we get up until our heads hit the pillow again. We can’t give up on it and say it has nothing to do with us.”
The message, while admirable, failed to resonate with at least one onlooker.
“I don’t know. I don’t care,” grumbled one motorbike taxi driver, clearly vexed by his attempt to navigate around the parade.
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