The newly-formed Future Forward Party and its charismatic young leader swept to power in Thailand’s 2019 elections winning 17% of votes—an impressive debut for a party that was barely a year old.
Young and urban Thais came out in force to support the new opposition party, which ran on a platform of curbing the military’s political power and ending the cycle of violent street protests and coups that has plagued Thailand for several decades.
But a raft of challenges threaten the very existence of the party. The Future Forward Party’s leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has already been disqualified from parliament. And a court ruling due Tuesday could see the party dissolved entirely.
Outside observers say that the charges are politically-motivated, aimed at keeping the military-backed government in power. The government is coming down hard on the Future Forward Party because it sees the party as a threat, they say.
Here’s what to know about the challenges facing Thailand’s Future Forward Party.
On Tuesday Thailand’s Constitutional Court will decide whether to dissolve the Future Forward Party (FFP) over allegations that it tried to overthrow the monarchy—claims party leaders deny.
The legal challenge is one in a slew of charges that have been brought against the FFP since its impressive debut in the 2019 elections. More than 25 legal cases have been brought against the FFP and its leaders, according to the Straits Times of Singapore.
In December, Thailand’s election commission also asked the court to dissolve the party over loans Thanathorn made to the party.
Thanathorn was disqualified as a member of parliament in Nov. 2019 over accusations that he breached media shareholding rules intended to create a level playing field among political candidates. Thanathorn has denied the allegations, saying that he had transferred shares he owned in a media company to his mother before the FFP submitted his name as a candidate.
Authorities brought a fresh set of legal charges against him in January for breaking public assembly laws when he organized a December anti-government flashmob protest in Bangkok, but he has vowed to continue the fight.
“If we do not give up, they will never steal our dreams,” he wrote on Twitter before going to the police station to face the charges, according to the Bangkok Post.
What is the Future Forward Party?
The FFP was founded in March 2018 by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a former business executive, and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, an assistant law professor.
Only a year after it was founded, the party surged in March 2019 elections on a platform promising to curb the army’s influence and rewrite the military-backed constitution to include more “democratic values.”
“The Future Forward Party reassures Thai people that it is possible for us to return to democracy,” the FFP says on its website. “We have now reached a crucial moment in our history. If we, the Thai people, do not stand up, take our future into our own hands and drag Thailand out of its ‘lost decade’, then our country risks irreparable ruin.”
Who is FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit?
Duncan McCargo, the director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, tells TIME that Thanathorn is so popular that he has amassed a “Korean boy band” type of following in Thailand.
Before joining the family business, Thanathorn worked at NGOs and he planned to join the United Nations as a development worker, but when his father died in 2002, he joined the family business instead.
“The present Prime Minister is in his 60s, and is surrounded by older military guys, very conservative somewhat washed up political hacks,” McCargo says. “Thanathorn’s youth and energy and capability seems like a refreshing alternative to that mode of politics.”
“Thanathorn has been able to articulate an alternative way of understanding Thailand’s politics, which is to downplay the centrality of the military and the bureaucracy, and really say: ‘we have to empower parliament, we have to move forward to a more democratic system, a more open system,'” McCargo says. “It’s a message that’s extremely appealing, particularly to younger people.”
Despite his disqualification from parliament, Thanathorn remains popular with voters. More than 31% of respondents in a December survey run by the National Institute for Development Administration said Thanathorn is the most suitable person to be the Prime Minister of Thailand. The current Prime Minister, Prayut Chan-ocha, got only 24% of the vote.
Why is the government cracking down on the Future Forward Party?
Experts say that the party’s overwhelming success in the 2019 elections— it emerged as the third-largest party with a field of 100% first-time candidates—put the government on edge.
Although Thailand is ostensibly democratic, the country’s military, which is backed by the monarchy, is the real power broker. In the 2019 election, the country’s first general election in eight years, the former general who seized control in a 2014 military coup, was installed as the Prime Minister. The elections were widely criticized as stacked in Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s favor.
“Since the 2014 coup, the Thai military has made repeated promises to restore democratic rule, but the generals have set up this election to ensure continued military rule in suits instead of uniforms,” Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said at the time of the election. “The junta has kept repressive laws, dissolved a main opposition party, taken control of the electoral commission, and handpicked a Senate with the power to thwart the will of the Thai people.”
Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, tells TIME that the country’s leaders are resorting to a “long-used tactic” of disqualification in an effort to quash the popular opposition.
“FFP’s result in the 2019 election, I think, surprised Prayuth, the army, and its party, and so they responded as they know best—with repression in a facade of judicial rulings, most of which are farcical,” Kurlantzick said.
In the latest example, the court dissolved in early 2019 the Thai Raksa Chart party, which had ties to the high-profile opposition figures, siblings and former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, who are both in exile.
McCargo agrees that the government views the FFP as a threat.
“The FFP poses, in the imaginations of the military and the conservative Thai elite, a kind of existential threat,” McCargo says. “For them it symbolizes the existence of a substantial element of the population who don’t really buy into assumptions that underpin their legitimacy.”
What will happen if the FFP is disbanded?
Thanathorn has warned that his party’s dissolution could ignite more demonstrations, and he appears to be preparing his supporters to take to the streets.
“Today is a show of strength so that in future others may join us,” Thanathorn told the crowd at a December protest he organized. “We’re just here today as a test run. Prayut, don’t be afraid yet. The real thing is next month.”
Experts say that renewed protests are likely, but others may be hesitant to join in.
“Some voters, especially younger ones, would likely join the party’s expected calls for renewed protests,” Murray Hiebert, head of research for business consulting firm BowerGroupAsia, tells TIME. “Others, however, may be wary about Thailand slipping back into another cycle of political chaos and street protests like it faced for much of the decade between 2005 and 2014.”
The FFP seems to be preparing for the worst. They say that if the party is disbanded, leaders will try to form a few party. And they are advising members to join other parties to continue carrying on their message if the FFP is banned.
“Our hearts and souls are committed to bringing about democracy and equality in Thailand, where everyone has rights and liberty,” Thanathorn said in December, according to local media. “A party can be disbanded, but not its ideology or its resolve. If dissolved, a new one will be founded. If dissolved, we will fight on.”