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Youth-powered progressives are on the move in Thailand's election
The 2019 Thai election was a major disappointment for opposition to the country’s military junta, which staged a coup in 2014 and pushed a new vote down the road for five years. Polls showed opposition parties ahead for much of the campaign, but actual results gave the major party of the junta, Palang Pracharat, a popular vote lead.
One of the most interesting phenomenons to emerge from that campaign, however, was a youth-charged progressive movement against military rule. No single piece of media better embodies this movement than this viral track from Rap Against Dictatorship released that year. The video racked up over 109 million views, and featured vigorous invective against dictatorship in Thailand, both past and present.
Politically, this movement found its voice in what was then known as the Future Forward Party. Founded by an auto-parts millionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a charismatic figure that reminded many of a particular soap opera icon, the party staged a significant challenge to both the junta and Thailand's established opposition. Future Forward ended up with over 17% of the vote, compared to Palang Pracharat at 23%, and the Shinawatra-backed Pheu Thai party around 22%.
After the election, Future Forward faced persecution from Thai authorities. The party was dissolved, and its leader Thanathorn banned from politics over violation of strict “lèse-majesté" laws against criticism of Thailand's monarchy. But Future Forward did not end its activities. Party leadership immediately launched a replacement outfit, the “Move Forward Party,” with Thanathorn's friend and fellow businessman Pita Limjaroenrat taking the helm.
This effort lingered in Thai politics, not making much headway. Their candidacy in the capital Bangkok, theoretically ideal ground for the party's appeal, took a backseat to a popular former government minister. Move Forward saw polling below their 2019 result for years.
Now, multiple polls show Move Forward charging ahead with some of their best projections ever, amid an opposition surge that seems capable of defeating the military-backed government- if it's actually borne out.
In this week’s NIDA survey, Move Forward is neck-and-neck with Pheu Thai, just a few points behind in both constituency and party list voting (which are separate in Thailand). That picture is more or less similar in the latest Thairath News poll, though Move Forward is further back in constituency votes there. Yet another poll, from Daily News and Matichon, even sees Move Forward in the lead, with over 50% of the vote on their own.
Not all polls share this outlook. Some still see Pheu Thai well ahead of its presumed ally, though most polls have the opposition combined blowing up the vote. In order for the opposition to actually form a government, such an outcome will be necessary; a 3/4ths majority is required to supersede Thailand’s military-appointed Senate, at least at the outset of government formation.
While the circumstances are absurdly unfair, the data does indicate a thumping opposition win is possible. Combined, most of the polls mentioned give Pheu Thai and Move Forward over 70% of the vote.
Adding to Move Forward’s momentum, some pollsters also estimate their leader Pita as the most popular candidate to be the next prime minister.
What accounts for the shift? One factor that stands out is Move Forward’s savvy social media campaign, complete with fancams and anime references. Last time around, Future Forward carried out an energetic run, with massive rallies that served as a testament to their support from young people.
In that vein, around 6.7 million “Gen Z” voters will be allowed to make themselves heard in this election. Given Move Forward’s capture of this demographic, it’s no wonder they’re now seeing a lift.
Even in the event of an opposition win, it’s another question entirely whether Thailand’s royalist military will allow a government to be formed without their approval. But for those fighting the incumbent regime, these elections present a major opportunity. International observers should lend them their attention, too.
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