BANGKOK — There are many descriptors associated with Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. He is a politician, a progressive, a suave billionaire and an ultramarathoner who has competed in races in the Gobi and Sahara deserts and the Arctic Circle.
But to his adoring fans, he’s simply “Daddy.”
For almost two decades, Thai politics has been stuck in a seemingly endless loop featuring two opposing sides: the supporters of ousted billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who have dominated elections, and the Thai army, which has pushed the Thaksin forces out of power through coups and corruption charges.
Enter Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party, which hopes to offer a credible alternative to both in a general election on March 24, the first in eight years.
The 40-year-old resigned from a leadership position in his billionaire family’s auto parts manufacturing company last May, opting instead to found a political party. Described as a “billionaire commoner,” wealthy yet apart from the palace-aligned elite that holds most sway in Thai society, the fit, handsome Thanathorn has drawn comparisons to French President Emmanuel Macron.
“There’s no hope left in this country. We’ve been in this political conflict since 2006,” he said in an interview last month. “If you want to end this political polarization, you need a new force that’s not in one of the two camps.”
He has quickly acquired a growing cult following among the young urbanites of Bangkok.
Fans call themselves “Fah” — a reference to a character on a popular Thai television program who is the mistress of a rich older man (Thanathorn is married with children) — and he is their “daddy.” They mob him, demanding selfies regardless of time or place, including once when he obliged by hanging out the back of a truck stuck in traffic. Some bestow gifts, like the large neon-green cup of bubble tea he had with him when he met with The Washington Post last month. They go crazy when he appears on television shows, awkwardly using teen slang words and the “finger heart” gesture made popular by Korean pop stars.
Recently, he responded to fans who had sent dozens of tubes of sunscreen to his party headquarters after watching him campaign for hours in Thailand’s blazing sun. He posted a photo of himself on Twitter applying the sunscreen to his nose and cheeks.
Thanathorn’s popularity appears to have rattled the ruling junta, which is making a bid to extend its grip on power and keep the current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, in office. The Future Forward Party has taken direct aim at the military government, and Thanathorn says his mission is to “stop the continuation of the junta’s regime.”
Thailand has been ruled by the military since a 2014 coup that unseated a government run by Thaksin’s sister.
Although some analysts have dismissed the new party as politically naive and lacking support outside urban areas, a potential boost has inadvertently come its way. After the dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart, the Thaksin-aligned party that tried and failed to nominate a princess as a candidate for prime minister, analysts expect its supporters will switch their allegiance to Thanathorn’s party, seeing the junta as a common enemy.
The government has flexed its muscle in response. From its inception, the Future Forward Party has faced criminal charges, starting with allegations against Thanathorn and two others of spreading false information in a Facebook Live video broadcast last June. The party’s deputy leader was similarly accused this month after sharing an article online that he later deleted.
Prosecutors say they will probably make a decision on the charges against Thanathorn two days after the election. If found guilty, he will be jailed.
“It is clear that there is a political motive behind this,” he said in the interview. “I’m not afraid. We did nothing wrong.”
Supporters have reacted by sending flowers and starting a hashtag, #savethanathorn.
Prayuth, the junta leader, has tried to similarly inspire supporters, making an attempt to soften and jazz up his image ahead of elections. He recently circulated photos of himself superimposed on backdrops of sunflowers and cherry blossoms, with the words “hello Monday” and “hello Tuesday,” similar to morning greetings shared widely on messaging applications in Thailand. His publicity team has also released photos of him in baseball caps and trendy sunglasses.
This week, in what resembled a campaign — even though as prime minister, he’s technically barred from campaigning under Thai electoral law — in his home province in northern Thailand, Prayuth sang a love song before his supporters and boasted of his government’s achievements.
Critics say this has done little to warm the public to a leader long seen as conservative and even short-tempered.
But it may not matter. Ahead of the vote, the junta has stacked the deck in its favor, changing the rules to prevent any one party from winning a landslide and handpicking a bloc of 250 unelected senators that will still get to vote for the eventual prime minister. The changes were widely seen as an attempt to prevent the main Thaksin-linked party, Pheu Thai, from winning a landslide, and they almost guarantee some level of gridlock and a messy coalition government after the vote.
“I don’t see how we can transition our country to democracy anytime soon. It is going to be a long journey. It requires a decade, if we are lucky,” Thanathorn said. “Yet it will be meaningful, in the sense that people will have the opportunity to vote.”
He added: “That’s a promising first step.”