PATHUM THANI/ SAMUT PRAKAN, Thailand - A woman hands a bunch of roses to opposition Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat at a campaign rally in Pathum Thani, north of Bangkok, on March 17.
She raises both arms high, flashing three-finger salutes – a gesture borrowed from the Hunger Games films that has become a defining symbol of Thailand’s pro-democracy movement.
A week later on March 24, on a larger stage in Chonburi in eastern Thailand, youth protesters foist themselves on stage with a sign asking people to vote to “abolish” or “amend” Thailand’s lese majeste law. The law punishes those who insult the monarchy.
Mr Pita welcomes them, and lets them address the crowd. He then votes by placing a sticker in the “Abolish” column on their poster. The 10 Chonburi constituency candidates behind him follow suit.
“However, I must apologise, but the party must push for amendments first,” he says. He notes that this step will be more feasible first, but if the amendments are still rejected, the party will push for its abolishment.
“This is why the people of Chonburi must elect our candidates to step forward, so we have enough votes to solve political problems,” Mr Pita tells the crowd.
Move Forward Party has become synonymous with the anti-establishment crusade that asks for bold and sometimes brazen reforms, including the controversial call to revise Article 112 of Thailand’s Criminal Code, which carries a prison term of up to 15 years if a person is found guilty of insulting the monarchy.
As part of its 300 campaign promises, the party has committed to amending this contentious law, while other parties have stayed away from the matter. It is the only party with policy that proposes specific changes to the law, including reducing its punishment and reach.
Move Forward is not one to shy away from controversial issues and clashes, as evidenced by the years of fiery exchanges it has had while crossing swords with the government coalition and its opposition allies.
While some are of the view that the opposition camp is where the party will do best, Mr Pita disagrees.
“If you like the way we did politics for the past four years in Parliament, it will be much better (when we enter) the government house for sure,” he told The Straits Times.
The goal in the May 14 election is to enter Parliament and to increase its House seats. But the mid-sized party’s stand on lese majeste and its quest for a political culture free of “vote buying”, patronage politics and political dynasties could hinder its bid to join a possible coalition government.
Even opposition partner Pheu Thai, which is campaigning heavily on the Shinawatra legacy under the charge of Ms Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the daughter of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, appears to be ignoring Move Forward’s attempts to forge an alliance.
Still, Mr Pita believes in finding common ground with other parties. It has, however, ruled out a coalition with the military-linked Palang Pracharath and Ruam Thai Sang Chart parties, led by former army generals who were involved in the 2014 coup.
“If we look at the big picture and the well-being of Thai people, we’ll be able to find a coalition to move the country forward,” he told ST.
Eloquent and affable, Mr Pita is relatively popular as the leader of the high-profile opposition party.
The 42-year-old, a graduate of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, successfully turned around his family’s debt-ridden business, which is now a leading rice-bran oil producer in the region. He served as Grab Thailand’s executive director before entering politics in 2019 with the Future Forward Party.
He is Move Forward’s sole prime minister candidate in the general election. In a recent opinion poll by the National Institute of Development Administration, he was voted the second favourite for the job, after Ms Paetongtarn.
But it is not his star power alone that has people turning up at rallies and walkabouts.
Other figures of Move Forward’s predecessor, the now-defunct Future Forward, also loom large and are assisting in its campaigning. These include former Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who was deemed a rising star in Time Magazine’s 100 Next list in 2019.
In the past decades, Thailand has been plagued by political instability, characterised by coups, clashes and sometimes violent confrontations.
Much of the conflict centred on two camps – supporters of former premier Thaksin and anti-coup activists, also known as the “red shirts” movement, and supporters of the establishment that viewed the rising Shinawatra-influence as a threat to the military and monarchy.
In 2018, a bolt of orange hit Thailand’s political scene in the form of the Future Forward Party.
Led by political novices contesting for the first time in the 2019 polls, the party shocked the crowded landscape when it nabbed more than six million votes and grabbed 81 Lower House seats.
It began its journey in Parliament House in the opposition camp and survived a raft of legal challenges that included a court case alleging its links with the Illuminati cult and its intention to overthrow the monarchy.
But barely two years in, Future Forward was dissolved over a 191 million baht (S$7.5 million) loan it received from Mr Thanathorn, 44, the scion of a multibillion-dollar vehicle parts manufacturer.
The court’s decision to disband the party triggered the months-long youth-led demonstrations in 2020 that saw thousands take to the streets to protest against the administration of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. As political tensions soared, crackdowns ensued as the government declared a state of emergency.
Following the dissolution of Future Forward, Mr Thanathorn and several other party executives were banned from politics for 10 years. About 50 of the remaining MPs grouped together under the Move Forward Party with Mr Pita as their leader.
Mr Thanathorn cannot run for office, nor is he allowed to be a member of a political party. But his presence lingers, with the lanky figure regularly making impassioned rally speeches and appearances with Move Forward candidates.
He is now the leader of the Progressive Movement, an organisation focused on local provincial politics outside of Bangkok’s national government. It is allied with Move Forward.
The Progressive Movement’s showing at the local elections in 2020 was dismal, with none of the 42 candidates that it backed getting elected as chiefs of the provincial administrations.
Still, Mr Thanathorn believes the work that he and former Future Forward executives Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Pannika Wanich have been doing at the movement will give Move Forward an advantage in the election.
“It opens new doors to possibilities… The impact might not be big in the municipalities, but it gives people hope,” Mr Thanathorn told ST, noting projects that have brought telemedicine and potable tap water to thousands living in two municipalities.
Naturally, there is the tendency to compare Mr Pita and Mr Thanathorn, who on occasion share a stage at Move Forward election rallies across Thailand.
Several party supporters still long for the charismatic and provocative-style personality of Mr Thanathorn, who is known to be a vocal government critic.
One female supporter in her 40s said that she voted for the Future Forward in 2019, and was disappointed at its demise. “Thanathorn represents change. We need that,” she said.
Mr Thanathorn’s interest in activism traces back to his undergraduate days at Thammasat University, where he participated in protests and cultivated his interest in social issues.
“Thanathorn has a record as a leftist activist, this is something that Pita doesn’t have,” said political analyst Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang.
Despite being sidelined from national politics, Mr Thanathorn continues to be a thorn in the government’s side. During Thailand’s battle with Covid-19 in 2021, he criticised the administration’s procurement of AstraZeneca vaccines from a firm owned by the royal family. He faces lese majeste charges.
Still, his popularity remains apparent.
At a Move Forward rally in Khon Kaen in early March, supporters crowded the stage to take selfies and crown Mr Thanathorn with marigold garlands before he made his speech.
This halted the rally for at least a couple of minutes. Organisers had to step in to herd people off the stage and remove some of the garlands that had been stacked so high that they covered Mr Thanathorn’s face.
When it was Mr Pita’s turn, no one was allowed up on stage until after the rally. At the end of the night, Mr Pita, too, had several orange garlands bundled around his neck.
“It’s an ideology, a journey for democracy, for equality, for a better Thailand… So I think it goes beyond me now,” said Mr Thanathorn, when asked if his popularity was what still carried the party.
Move Forward has no doubt stuck to its guns as a torch-bearer for the pro-democracy movement, with its members lending their support and voice to the youth-led protesters facing criminal prosecution.
Its MPs, too, have delivered in Parliament’s Chambers, often staging robust debates and subjecting ministers to the third degree. Their detailed exposes and claims of purported corruption have also sparked criminal investigations, including allegations of an online misinformation campaign targeting government critics and, more recently, supposedly links between several politicians and Chinese triad operations in Thailand.
However, their strength in Parliament could very well be their weakness, said Dr Khemthong.
“The people want to see Move Forward continue doing the job it has done, exposing scandal and asking critical questions in Parliament. But some think that it might not be ready to form the government,” he said.
The party’s campaign also makes promises to raise the minimum wage of about 330 baht to 450 baht, as well as to allow same-sex marriage and introduce more environmentally friendly incentives.
But for a party that chiefly campaigns on changing existing political structures and “preventing dictatorship”, these beliefs might be too abstract for voters, especially when many are still hurting financially after the pandemic, said Dr Khemthong.
“As people get poorer, they become less ideological. They have to be pragmatic. This is where populist policies might still hold its attraction,” he said.
Ultimately, Mr Thanathorn and the orange movement he co-founded cannot be divorced from each other. For now, he will have to watch from the sidelines and toe a fine line while supporting his peers who make it to Parliament.
And when his ban ends in 2030, will he return to run for political office again?
With a grin, Mr Thanathorn says that this is not his wish.
“I want to be politically obsolete... But (if after) seven years, we are still at the current point, we still cannot (become) a democratic Thailand, and if I’m needed, I am willing to do it again,” he said.
- This is part of a series on Thailand’s key personalities and political parties. The Straits Times reports from the campaign trail ahead of the 2023 election.