Bangkok, Thailand – In January last year, in the quiet library of his family home in Bangkok, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit sat down beneath the chandeliers with a group of friends to lament the state of his country.
After discussions that went on into the early hours, Thanathorn and his guests decided to set up a political party that would offer the Thai people the promise of a fair and equitable democratic nation and a military confined to its barracks.
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“There was fear everywhere,” Thanathorn told Al Jazeera of his decision last year to go into politics.
“There was no glimpse of hope. We said someone has to stand up to the military regime, destroy the politics of fear and bring back the politics of hope – so that’s what we did.”
On Friday, two days before Thailand votes in its first election since the military overthrew the last democratically elected government in 2014, the 40-year-old father of four took to the stage in a Bangkok stadium to a deafening roar and cries of “Prime minister, prime minister”.
‘They see their future in Thanathorn’
As the election date was finally confirmed for March and campaigning got under way, a buzz began to build around Thanathorn and his Future Forward Party, fuelled partly by social media.
But Future Forward also seemed to be attracting the attention of the estimated seven million first-time voters frustrated at the political divisions between the populist pro-democracy parties associated with Thaksin Shinawatra and the conservative establishment aligned with the military and the monarchy.
“Young voters are fed up with the deep polarisation,” said Prajak Kongkirati, of Thammasat University, who wrote his doctoral thesis on political violence and democracy in Thailand between 1975 and 2011.
“That’s why Future Forward is attractive to them. They are fed up with both [Prime Minister] Prayuth and Thaksin and are looking for alternatives. They see their future in Thanathorn who represents their generation, their hope and a new kind of politics.”
Thanathorn, 40, made his fortune in the car parts industry – now hived off into a blind trust – and is at least a decade younger than the typical Thai election candidate.
Prayuth Chan-ocha who led the coup and is trying to hold onto power as a civilian prime minister turned 65 on Thursday, while Sudarat Keyuraphan of Pheu Thai has held ministerial roles in previous democratic governments and is 57. The Democrats Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was prime minister during the bloody crackdown on Bangkok street protests in 2010, is now 54.
On Friday, Pheu Thai held its closing rally only a few minutes from Future Forward; the crowd mostly older and the set-up considerably more restrained. Sudarat reminded her supporters that they, the people, were the ones who held the power and that they had won against the military before.
Prayuth, who has shied away from campaign rallies and debates with his rivals, finally spoke at the closing rally of the pro-military Palang Pracharat Party, telling the audience that he was ready to “die for his country” and that maintaining peace and order remained the most important issue for Thailand. He has consistently argued that it is the politicians who are to blame for the political unrest of the past two decades.
Lieutenant-General Pongskorn Rodchompoo, a life-long military man and Future Forward’s deputy leader, says it is actually the military that is the source of Thailand’s political problems. He is working on plans that would reform the military, including its reporting structures, and make the force more professional.
At the Future Forward rally, 25-year-old Punyanuch Thumakijpiraj is one of those who’ve been energised by the party. It’s not her first-time voting, but she has been impressed by its plans for Thailand – and, of course, Thanathorn.
“He looks good,” she told Al Jazeera. “But that’s not all. We chose him because we have the same mission. He offers something that the people want.”
Chaiporn Taitee, 41, who drives a motorbike taxi, says he likes the fact that the party is fielding a diversity of candidates and is desperate to see the back of the military.
“Enough coups,” he told Al Jazeera.
The high turnout in early voting last weekend has raised hopes that Thailand could be on the brink of change among the pro-democracy parties, but others say the new constitution drafted by the military gives it the upper hand.
Voting itself is complicated with both direct votes and party lists, and the party that wins a majority in the lower house – expected to be Pheu Thai – may not even form the government because a majority is required across both houses and the 250-member upper house is appointed by the military.
As election day nears, Thanathorn is reluctant to put a target to the number of seats the party might win, but notes that if they get 20, then they will be able to introduce bills in parliament without being forced to compromises their agenda.
An adventurer and outdoor sports enthusiast – the family’s bikes are stored beneath the stairs and there is an entire room to store his climbing equipment – Thanathorn admits he has embarked on the political equivalent of an ultra-marathon.
“We are preparing for the long-haul,” he says, as books by the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty and Edward Said line up on the shelves behind him.
“It’s going to take a decade maybe longer. In this election, there will be no final victory. March 24 will be the beginning.”