In late February, the Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolved the Future Forward Party (FFP), the third-largest party in the Thai legislature. University students across the country began protesting, calling on the government to respect their vote and end corruption.
The FFP is a relatively young party
Founded just two years ago, FFP quickly grew popular, attracting voters with its strong pro-democracy and anti-corruption stances ― as well as the party’s unwillingness to engage in “old-style” politics, such as vote-buying and relying on local magnates.
But the Constitutional Court ruled that FFP leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit made political donations during last year’s elections, circumventing Thailand’s election laws. The Court categorized that money as “other benefits,” which are limited to contributions of 10 million baht (about $320,000). The party’s leader and 14 other executives were banned from politics for 10 years, and the remaining 65 FFP members of parliament must join a new party.
Thanathorn insists the money was a loan to the party. Indeed, a group of 36 law professors from Thammasat University disagreed with the court’s ruling.
To many observers, the dissolution of FFP is the latest in a string of moves to consolidate the power of the military in Thai politics. After two coups and two rewrites of the constitution in 14 years, a pro-military party, Palang Pracharath (PPRP), was set up in 2018, nominating junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha as its candidate for prime minister in the December 2019 elections. PPRP came in second in those elections, but was able to secure Prayuth’s continuation as prime minister thanks to a constitutional amendment that required a majority of the joint membership of the House and Senate. The Senate is made up of members appointed by the military government.
Dissolving parties is not a new tactic
In May 2007, the Constitutional Court dissolved former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thais Love Thais (TRT) party, after the military deposed him in a coup in September 2006. Then in 2008, the court dissolved the successor to TRT, the People’s Power Party (PPP), which was Thailand’s governing party at the time. Supporters of parties aligned to Thaksin have, for the past decade or so, been the main pro-democracy force in Thailand and the main opposition to the military and conservative forces, which includes the ostensibly independent Constitutional Court.
But FFP is not the governing party, the largest opposition party, or a Thaksin-aligned party, so why target it? Why not target Pheu Thai, the largest party in parliament (though not in government) and the main Thaksin-aligned party?
Dissolving FFP allows the military-aligned government to achieve two goals: send a signal to all opposition parties, especially Pheu Thai, that the military is still firmly in charge, without a direct confrontation to its primary challenger; and suppress an electoral threat that can only grow in the future, given FPP’s popularity with young Thais. My survey results suggest this popularity may cut into the traditional conservative support bases that have upheld the Thai military over the past decade-and-a-half.
Age is Thailand’s new political divide
So what do young Thais think about their political future? In January, I conducted a quota-based online survey of 5,553 people, with further age, income and regional weighting to approximate a nationally representative sample. I asked the question: “Which political party do you like the most?”
The survey showed that Future Forward was the clear favorite of those ages 18-to-29: 41.7 percent chose FFP, while only 14.2 percent chose the military’s PPRP. This number drops to 27.5 percent for those aged 30-to-39, but FFP is still the most preferred party for that demographic. Once we move to the 40-to-54 age bracket, PPRP is the most preferred party with just 16.4 percent favoring FFP. Just 9.9 percent of the 55-plus demographic chose FFP. For the PPRP and its allies, such as the formerly largest party of conservative forces in Thailand, the Democrat Party, this means the potential shift of hundreds of thousands of net votes added to the political opposition each year.
In general, younger people tend to be less well off, so there is also a correlation between income and support for FFP. Income has been the traditional division between conservative and pro-democracy forces in Thailand, with higher incomes much more likely to support the military. However, my survey shows that for the 18-to-29 age bracket, FFP is the preferred party at every income level. In short, support for FFP cuts across the traditional political divide of income posing a potential threat to the military’s base of support.
Dissatisfaction with the military is wider than just the young generation
In other work, I have shown that FFP also competes geographically with PPRP’s base of support in the central heartlands of Thailand. My survey also shows that another traditional support base of the military, civil servants, prefer FFP (19.3 percent) in almost equal numbers to PPRP (20.1 percent).
The military’s popularity is waning fast. Economic performance is poor and a World Bank study released this week reported that poverty has actually increased in Thailand over the last five years. In short, the student protests that began last week in reaction to the dissolution of FFP may just be the beginning of sustained resistance against military rule that has been entrenched since the 2014 coup.
Joel Selway is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and author of “Coalitions of the Well-being: How Electoral Rules and Ethnic Politics Shape Health Policy in Developing Countries” (Cambridge University Press, 2015). This article includes data from a book manuscript in progress on partisanship in Thailand, provisionally titled “The Thai Voter,” with Allen Hicken (University of Michigan).