Duncan McCargo and Anyarat Chattharakul
Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party,
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2020
In Thailand’s 2019 elections, an upstart new political party known as Future Forward won 81 seats, becoming the third largest party in the parliament. Yet the Future Forward Party had only been founded a year before, and had very little local or grassroots organisation. On 21 February 2020, Future Forward was dissolved by order of the Constitutional Court and its leaders were banned from holding political office for a decade.
The March 2019 elections showed that Thailand remained intensely polarized: conservatives aligned with the military and the monarchy remain pitted against critics of the establishment who support a more open political order. The country’s politics have been extremely contentious since demonstrations against the government of then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra began in late 2005.
Future Forward, a new political party led by 40 year old autoparts tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was a rare attempt to break the flawed mould of Thai politics. Borrowing some elements from the playbooks of recent European ‘antiparties’ such as Spain’s Podemos and Italy’s Five Star Movement, Future Forward sought to appeal directly to voters on the basis of a national platform, rather than relying on locally-prominent constituency candidates to mobilise voters on the ground. People chose Future Forward mainly because of the high profile appeal of Thanathorn and two other key figures – secretary general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and spokesperson Pannika Wanich – who quickly gained celebrity status. This book is organized into three main chapters: Leaders, Voters, and Party. It asks how far Future Forward can usefully understood as exemplifying a new mode of ‘digital party’ that used internet technologies to promote its hyperleaders to a range of followers.
The book examines how Future Forward succeeded in mobilizing so much electoral support, whilst also arousing intense hostility from the conservative forces than demanded its dissolution. Thanathorn and his colleagues represented an existential threat to the Thai establishment – at least in the imaginations of the elite. Their ability to capture the zeitgeist and tap into the aspirations of digital natives and millennials whose felt little loyalty to older notions of Thai identity posed an immense challenge to the powers-that-be.
Future Forward is co-authored by Duncan McCargo and Anyarat Chattharakul, a research associate at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies who specialises on Thailand’s electoral politics. Drawing on fieldwork conducted in 2019, and supplemented by extensive online research including interviews with the party leadership, it is based largely on primary and Thai language sources.
Written in twelve weeks during the Spring 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, the book was published by NIAS Press in September 2020.