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Thailand’s young voters spearhead ‘earth-shaking’ calls for change in military dominated kingdom

By Helen Regan and Kocha Olarn, CNN

As Thailand heads to the polls on Sunday a “lost generation” of young voters fired up by a yearning for change are keeping alive previously taboo topics, including the military’s stranglehold on the levers of power — and even royal reform.

The May 14 poll is the first since youth-led mass pro-democracy protests in 2020 and only the second since a military coup in 2014 ousted an elected government, restoring a conservative clique that has pulled the strings in the kingdom’s turbulent politics for decades.

While an old battleground has emerged between democratic allies and pro-military parties, at the heart of this year’s election is a fight led by a young generation who want what they see as a better version of Thailand.

Two parties — populist Pheu Thai and progressive Move Forward — are leading the polls, with both campaigning to remove the military from politics.

The opposition Pheu Thai is aiming for a landslide. Paetongtarn Shinawatra, 36, is one of the party’s three prime ministerial candidates and the latest member of a controversial political dynasty to contest.

Both her father, Thaksin, a former policeman turned billionaire telecoms tycoon, and her aunt Yingluck ran governments that were ousted in military coups. Both also live in exile, with Thai courts sentencing them to prison on corruption charges in their absence.

Enormously popular among Thailand’s rural and urban working classes, Thaksin-aligned parties have won every election since 2001.

But it’s Move Forward that is being described by analysts as a “game changer.”

Contesting for the first time, the party’s platform includes a radical national reform agenda that threatens to shake up Thailand’s conservative establishment.

It is pledging deep structural reforms to how Thailand is run: changes to the military, the economy, the decentralization of power and even reforms to the previously untouchable monarchy.

“That is earth-shaking in Thailand as [the monarchy] is a taboo subject,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University.

“That’s why this election is unlike any other. That’s why this election is the most important so far in Thai elections. Because it’s moving the agenda, it’s moving the frontier to next stage… to the core of Thailand’s problems.”

Two separate opinion polls issued last week put Move Forward’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat, 42, as favorite for prime minister, according to Reuters, suggesting the party’s reform platform is appealing to not just young Thais but a wider society.

From the streets to the ballot

Three years ago, youth-led protests swept the southeast Asian nation demanding democratic and military reforms, constitutional change, and — most shockingly for Thailand — to curb the powers of the monarchy.

Those protests ended in a police crackdown and hundreds of arrests while the Covid pandemic raged on, but their anger — and the movement that was born out of it — never went away.

Some of those protesters are now contesting Sunday’s election, vowing to enact change from within.

Chonthicha Jangrew, 30, was a prominent fixture at the protests and is now vying for a parliament seat with the Move Forward Party.

“We feel that we are the lost generation. We have been living under an authoritarian government during our most critical years,” she told CNN. “We were repeatedly told we have to work harder, but we just can’t see our future in this country … it is still difficult to buy our own house or even a car.”

Chonthicha has been out on the campaign trail promoting her party’s policies, including to reduce the military’s budget and size, abolish military service, to get rid of military-appointed senators, and to draft a new constitution that “serves the people.”

“We can’t solve our economic problems if we don’t have good and stable politics,” she said. “After we have good politics, we can have a good welfare state for the people. Especially as we are facing economic and environmental challenges, a pandemic and climate change.”

She wants to see the Thai government respect human rights and freedom of expression. And that includes amendments to Article 112 of the Criminal Code — Thailand’s strict lese majeste law that criminalizes criticism of the monarchy and makes any frank discussion of the subject fraught with risk.

Lese majeste convictions carry long prison terms and currently, anyone can bring a case, even if they aren’t connected to the alleged crime.

Before the 2020 protests it was highly unusual to hear Thais talk openly about the monarchy. Now, Chonthicha said people are discussing monarchy reform and the extension of the king’s power.

“This is already a success for us, we have already turned a taboo subject into a public debate. It used to be a prohibited topic to discuss, now everyone is talking about it,” she said.

It could be an uphill battle for Chonthicha. She is facing dozens of legal charges linked to her activism including two counts of lese majeste, and four charges of sedition for her role in the protest movement between 2020 and 2022.

Im Jeepetch, a 24-year-old IT engineer from Bangkok, says she plans to vote for Move Forward.

“It has been not OK for me at all for the past eight years,” Im said, citing in particular frustration with the job market and Thailand’s education system.

Move Forward is the de facto successor to the Future Forward Party, which won the third most number of seats in the 2019 election. Shortly after the vote, Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved the party and banned its leaders from politics for 10 years.

That brought thousands of young people out onto the streets across the country — sparking the 2020 movement.

This time, the party is hoping to beat Future Forward’s 81 seats. Chonthicha believes the demands from the street protests can become a reality as Move Forward could become part of a coalition government, likely joining forces with Pheu Thai.

The Shinwatras and Thai politics

Political juggernaut Pheu Thai also wants to kick the military out of power, amend the constitution, and end military service — but the party has made it clear it won’t touch Article 112.

Paetongtarn, who was back campaigning just days after giving birth, is the youngest daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin. He has again vowed to return to Thailand from self-imposed exile, even though he faces potential prison time.

The family has been the main populist force in Thai politics for more than two decades but leading a new government could fall to political newbie and property tycoon Srettha Thavisin.

Srettha, one of Pheu Thai’s three picks for prime minister, says he’s not Thaksin’s man and is keen to focus on fixing Thailand’s income inequality, promote LGBTQ+ rights including same-sex marriage, root out corruption and put Thailand back on the world stage.

“I want to be a prime minister who can make the difference,” Srettha told CNN. “We really need to be boosting foreign activities. We need to go out and talk to the world. We need to sell Thailand. What are the advantages of investing in Thailand? What do we have to offer the world?”

Many parties are offering populist welfare policies to attract voters, but Pheu Thai has pledged to give 10,000 baht (about $300) in a digital wallet to every Thai over the age of 16, prompting questions of where the cash will come from.

“Thailand has been in a bad economic situation for the last five to eight years. We are kind of in a coma. You need a big economic stimulus policy just to get them back on their feet and start being economic producing members of society again,” Srettha said.

Senate stacked against them

Pheu Thai and Move Forward’s policies present a “full frontal assault” on Thailand’s powerful conservative establishment, political scientist Thitinan said.

That is unlikely to go unchallenged, and in the past, lawmakers have faced bans, parties have been dissolved, and governments have been overthrown.

Thailand has witnessed a dozen successful coups since 1932, including two in the past 17 years.

And there are other roadblocks to the progressive movement’s potential election success.

Under a constitution drafted by the military following their last coup, the 250-seat Senate was appointed by the junta and is able to influence who becomes the next prime minister.

A party needs a majority of the combined houses — 750 seats — to elect a prime minister. With the Senate likely to vote for a pro-military candidate, it means opposition parties need almost three times as many votes in the lower house to be able to elect the next leader.

And while the pro-democracy parties are leading polls, experts warn against underestimating incumbent Prime Minister and former coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha.

He’s ruled Thailand since seizing power from former Prime Minister Yingluck in 2014. His military-drafted constitution ensured his party’s coalition gained enough seats to elect him as prime minister in 2019, despite Pheu Thai being the largest party.

“His numbers are not high but he’ll leverage the Senate to become Prime Minister first,” said political scientist Thitinan. “Once he’s got the backing of the Senate, he could convince other lawmakers to join his camp and govern with a minority in the lower house.”

Whoever wins Sunday’s election, the progressive movement, strengthened by an increasingly politically aware and determined young generation, is not going anywhere.

“It will not take long to see the real change,” said Move Forward’s Chonthicha. “The change is already here, these kids in the near future they will be able cast their votes. They are the deciding factor of Thai society.”

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