Thai parties woo the young


Good shot: Thanathorn taking selfies with students during his election campaign rally at Siam University in Bangkok. — AP

BANGKOK: Will young people like the ones who turned out on a recent Saturday night to listen to politically hip rappers also make it to the polls for Thailand’s upcoming general election?

The country in which this year’s 7 million eligible first-time voters have grown up has experienced two army coups since 2006, violent political polarisation and a nasty crackdown on freedom of expression by the military clique that has held the reins since a 2014 takeover.

Topping the recent concert bill was the group Rap Against Dictatorship, whose surprise hit, My Country’s Got That,” lambasts the hypocrisy of Thai society.

Some of the song’s milder lyrics describe Thailand as “the country whose Parliament is a parlour”.

The breakthrough song has garnered almost 59 million views since its release on YouTube last October.

Judging by the crowd at the concert, most of its fans hail from the 18-to-35-year-old demographic that makes up a quarter of Thailand’s 51 million-strong electorate.

This generation is too young to hold many memories of a Thailand that was not politically troubled.

It also does not harbour any nostalgic affection for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist whose 2006 overthrow ushered a political dark age in what had been one of South-East Asia’s most promising democracies.

Unlike Thaksin’s hardcore “red shirt” followers and his rabid “yellow shirt” opponents, their allegiances are up for grabs.

Political parties are taking notice, mostly by showcasing their younger candidates.

The Democrat Party, the country’s oldest, has its “New Dem” group of 21 young politicians led by 26-year-old Parit Wacharasindhu, a nephew of party leader Abhisit Vejajjiva, a former prime minister who also capitalised on his youthful image.

Bhumjaithai, known as an old-fashioned patronage-driven regional party, has a platform close to urban millennials’ hearts – liberalisation of marijuana laws, legalisation of ride-­sharing and easing repayment on student loans.

Even the Palang Prachatrath Party, more or less a proxy for the military, showed off 30 young members at a news conference.

But it’s the Future Forward Party, founded last March, that seems to capture the youth’s imagination.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, its chief, who can tap into a family fortune from the auto parts industry, projects an image similar to a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

Tall, trim and favouring casual dress, the 40-year-old is tech-savvy and practices extreme sports.

He also has a low-profile history of supporting progressive organisations, while most of his core team is younger and involved promoting causes such as rights for the disabled, the LGBT community and the #MeToo movement.

“We will make democracy a part of every decision-making process from the choosing of party members, the determining of party direction and strategy, to the developing of party policies,” Thanathorn said at the party’s debut last year.

The party’s policies are a response to Thailand’s political impasse: refor­ming the coup-inclined military and rewriting the military-imposed constitution to restore democracy.“I think conflict over the years educated people that politics is important,” Thanathorn said in an interview at a campaign event at Siam University in Bangkok.

Boonyanuch Prachasingh, a 20-year-old student at the university, said she is looking for a party with strong policies on education, democratisation and transparency, and capable of change.

Fellow student Kittiphum Pannadermitri, 21, believes the economy is the most pressing issue.

“I think Thanathorn is from a new generation and has new ideas.

“I think he could help improve the economy, help farmers, and tackle pollution problems,” he said.

Sawitree Puangngern, 23, a concert-goer said she has already decided to vote for Future Forward.

“I want the military out from politics and I want people to have their rights back.” — AP

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