Thai politics has a youthful newcomer waiting in the wings

BANGKOK: A 39-year-old motor parts billionaire and extreme sports enthusiast seeking to shake up Thai politics has been compared to France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau for his youth.

But Thanathorn Juangroong-ruangkit (pic) sees little prospect of emulating their electoral success even if the junta holds elections as promised next year.

“Election laws are unfavourable to us, timing is unfavourable to us, the attitude of the government is unfavourable to us,” he said.

“But a little hope is better than no hope at all.”

Thanathorn launched his Future Forward party this month with a big fanfare and a promise to appeal to the youth vote.

But the forces that have divided Thailand for a generation are also mobilising – and making plain their enduring presence four years after the coup that ousted a “red” populist government in the name of ending turmoil with a “yellow” royalist elite.

Thanathorn isn’t a total newcomer. Since his student days, he has been part of campaigns against poverty and inequality though in recent years he has spent more time helping run the Thai Summit Group founded by his late father and running ultra-marathons in the Arctic and the Sahara.

His emergence comes as the junta starts registering parties ahead of a frequently delayed election now set for 2019. Whether his party will win registration is still in question.

Piyaphong Klinphan, a junta spokesman, said registration was a matter for the election commission, but the junta would make sure nobody could disturb security or break the law.

It has been widely noted in Thailand that Future Forward’s orange colour is a mix of the red and yellow of the old rivals, although the party has said this is unintentional.

In the “red shirt” camp are supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the last billionaire to shake up Thai politics, whose populist policies won support from farmers, the poor and the heavily populated northeast.

The “yellow shirt” camp represents the traditional privilege of the Bangkok based establishment, strongly pro-army and pro-monarchy.

“We need to convince people from all colours to come back and have faith in parliamentary democracy,” said Thanathorn, a father of three.

But Thanathorn’s party has barely started to build the grassroots structures that helped parties linked to Thaksin win every election since 2001.

In a pro-Thaksin stronghold in Bangkok, only a few kilometres from where Thanathorn launched his party, most of more than 20 people asked by Reuters said they had not heard of him.

All said they would stick with the Pheu Thai Party, whose leaders flew to Hong Kong and Singapore last month for meetings with Thaksin that participants said had focused on preparations for the elections.

“I don’t want a young man to lead the country,” commented one 58-year-old “red shirt” who gave his name only as Na. — Reuters

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