19 May 2024

A combination of the Thaksin factor, appeal of a youthful image and repellence of old-style politics has contributed to one of the biggest surprises in modern Thai political history.

Signs of a Move Forward election triumph were always there, but they were probably misinterpreted in 2019 when the better-than-expected performance of the Future Forward Party coincided with the dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, and were downplayed again before Sunday’s election due to the rumbling talks about a Pheu Thai landslide.

Sunday’s results were a surprise, yes, but it was a surprise because many things were either underestimated or ignored.

One of the biggest indications came from the Pheu Thai Party. Whereas Move Forward declared from Day One that it would work with none of the “Ps” (Prayut Chan-o-cha and Prawit Wongsuwan in particular), Pheu Thai waited until just a few days before the election to rule out a union with the Palang Pracharath Party. That belated declaration, many analysts believe, may have been motivated by inside knowledge about Move Forward’s alarming surge.

Then it came Thaksin Shinawatra’s “I’m going home” pledge. A lot of observers thought he was throwing a Hail Mary in a bid to help backpedal Pheu Thai in the homestretch. Everyone knew it was a risk to associate the homecoming of a controversial figure to a political party seeking a landslide, but if it worked, it could hopefully bring back supporters who started to see Move Forward as more ideologically committed.

As it seemingly turned out on Sunday, the Thaksin factor backfired. A lot of voters apparently did not want that kind of division and maybe they saw voting for Pheu Thai as a way to rekindle them. Move Forward is controversial itself, but the party represents new controversies, not the old one that plagued Thailand for years and years.

And those new controversies at least belong to the new generation, which has decided it is willing to risk it. While Thaksin is an old-generation problem, supporters of Move Forward may be saying on Sunday: “You keep worrying about your troubles and we will take care of ours.”

Move Forward’s youthful setup, presentation, as well as the way it is actually operated, appealed to the new generation. Adding that to the Thaksin doubts besetting Pheu Thai, which was rocked considerably before the election by one of its own ex-warriors, Jatuporn Prompan, it was a giant propeller benefiting Pita Limjaroenrat’s party.

A big surprise as it is, Move Forward’s election success is just the beginning of a real political life whose challenges will be coming thick and fast. Like everyone who has gone through adolescence, the real challenge is to keep idealism from being overshadowed by demanding and daunting realities.

By Tulsathit Taptim