Thais find new star in Future Forward Party

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit smiles during a press conference in Bangkok on March 25, 2019.
Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit smiles during a press conference in Bangkok on March 25, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - The future looks rosy for Thailand's young Future Forward Party, after it won 30 constituency seats in Sunday's election, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the more established Democrats on their home turf Bangkok.

Founded only a year ago by 41-year-old auto parts billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the stridently anti-junta upstart was arguably the biggest winner in the just-ended poll, the country's first in eight years and also the first since a military coup in 2014.

After weeks of campaigning at universities and markets dressed casually in a T-shirt - and getting swarmed by adoring supporters for selfies - Mr Thanathorn appeared dapper before the media on Monday (March 25) wearing a blue blazer and a celebratory smile.

"We are very excited with the results. I have to say that the trust that people have given to us in the 24th of March election was overwhelming," he told reporters, in response to a question by The Straits Times.

"We are very proud to be here, to be the third (party by vote counts) in the election. It's an amazing journey for the past one year," he added.

The political novice has played his cards right to appeal to most of the seven million first-time voters forming the bulk of his supporters with promises of reforms, true democracy and transparency in government.

His confident and no-holds barred take on controversial matters also appears to resonate with the grassroots and older crowd used to political unrest.

Motorcycle-taxi driver and Bangkok resident Lek Yodsanga, 53, said he had cast his ballot for Future Forward this time, after having previously voted for the Democrat Party led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Pheu Thai party linked to fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

"Pheu Thai's original leaders are not in Thailand and Democrat leaders are not strong. Future Forward is new, has no bad or good record, and worth giving a chance to," he said.

"Thanathorn is willing to leave his rich and comfortable life as a businessman to become a politician to fight for the common people," he added.

With his popularity hitting new highs, Mr Thanathorn yesterday revealed his ambition to become the country's prime minister - but said he would not push for the position as his party did not win the most number of seats and was therefore neither "credible" nor "legitimate".

"We are ready, I am ready to be the prime minister, but we believe that being the prime minister is a very important task," he said. "We believe being third in the election doesn't give us legitimacy to become the prime minister," he added.

However, Mr Thanathorn said his party was willing to form a coalition with "the party that has won the most seats".

While he did not mention names, the party topping the polls based on preliminary results is Pheu Thai with 137 seats. A party or coalition needs at least 376 seats to elect the prime minister, and Future Forward's backing would definitely be a boost to Pheu Thai's candidate for prime ministership, Ms Sudarat Keyuraphan.

With 5.3 million votes won - the third largest after Palang Pracharath Party and Pheu Thai - Future Forward has proven it is a force to reckon with, but a pending criminal case against Mr Thanathorn could put a spanner in the works.

Mr Thanathorn has insisted the charge against him - of "uploading false information" after he posted a speech on Facebook in June - which carries a jail term of up to five years was "politically-motivated" and "groundless". "So, we are not worried or concerned about the case at all," he added.

The pairing between Pheu Thai and Future Forward may not be surprising since both are staunch critics of the military government.

Dr Michael Montesano, coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme at Singapore's ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times that the two parties "have always been logical allies" but "I'm surprised that Thanathorn is willing so quickly to identify himself with Pheu Thai".

It's still early days yet, and "we are going to have many weeks of unpredictable manoeuvrings," he added.