Thailand

Thai tycoon eyes youth vote with new party as coups, corruption and old faces fuel hunger for fresh politics

The head of the multibillion dollar Thai Summit Group and a law professor together registered ‘Future Forward’ for the 2019 elections, joining more than 40 others

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 5:21pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2018, 9:20pm

A 39-year-old business tycoon entered Thailand’s political bear-pit on Thursday with the launch of a new progressive party, courting the youth vote in a kingdom plagued by coups and corruption.

Dubbed “Future Forward”, the party was born out of a late night conversation three months ago between Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, whose helps run his family’s auto-parts empire, and a young law professor Piyabutr Saengkanokkul.

The duo unveiled their new party in Bangkok on Thursday, vowing to lead Thailand out of a decade-long political deadlock between two main political factions.

The political novices will follow more than 40 new parties that have signed up in a registration drive this month, ahead of elections the ruling junta has promised for early 2019.

But their party in particular has been the talk of the town for weeks, with Thanathorn’s deep pockets, youthful looks and liberal values whipping the kingdom’s pro-democracy community into a froth of excitement.

Analysts say the buzz is a sign of hunger for fresh faces in a political arena dominated by an “old guard” who have built their power through personality cults and patronage.

Repeated military coups have further undermined Thailand’s democracy, with the current junta banning all politics since its 2014 putsch.

What I see out there is a society on the brink of collapse
Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

New parties are now allowed to register but remain barred from campaigning.

With a resume ranging from left-wing student activism to ultra-marathons and helming the family’s multibillion dollar Thai Summit Group, Thanathorn says he is qualified to lead Thailand to a more democratic future.

“What I see out there is a society on the brink of collapse,” he said from a library in his palatial Bangkok home ahead of the party’s launch, citing the coups, entrenched inequality and judicial bias that plague the kingdom.

For some, Thanathorn’s arrival on the political scene will seem reminiscent of that of exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecoms billionaire who stormed to power in 2001 and lies at the heart of the kingdom’s political split.

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Thaksin’s faction bills itself as a pro-democracy movement that has fallen victim to a conservative army-allied elite. Yet his political network has also drawn criticism for graft and personal loyalty to Thaksin Shinawatra before the wider democratic cause.

That has left young, left-wing Thais with nowhere to turn, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled professor and prominent junta critic.

Thanathorn is “a breath of fresh air,” he said. “This guy has no political baggage. He has no corruption cases”.

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Yet the newcomer faces a steep uphill climb.

He must contend with both a military that has the power to sideline foes as well as old guard parties who have cemented voting networks across the country through years of politicking and patronage.

There is also the danger of lawsuits, which are routinely wielded as political weapons in Thailand.

Thanathorn says he is ready for the challenge.

“There is a high chance I might end up in jail … but I think that is one risk I am ready to take,” he said.