A new Thai political party says it will resume accepting political donations despite being ordered to stop by election officials after it racked up more than half a million dollars on the first day of its launch.
Future Forward, led by young, charismatic billionaire entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, is emerging as a powerful new party ahead of overdue elections expected next year.
More than $615,000 went to the party in the form of donations, membership fees and merchandise sales after it was officially launched at the start of this month on a platform of grassroots democratization and progressive values, it said.
Future Forward had to halt some fundraising, though, after Thailand's election commission reportedly said the party could not accept donations without approval from the ruling military junta, which has yet to fully lift a ban on political activities.
Future Forward spokesperson Pannika Wanich told VOA Wednesday her party was on the verge of announcing it would defy any order from the junta that bans direct fundraising. The junta is officially named the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO.
“So, just yesterday, we had an executive committee meeting discussing this issue. And we decided what we’ll do according to the normal law, not the NCPO order, and we’ll continue all fundraising activities,” she said.
“We are fully aware that the NCPO can do anything, actually, to us. But if we don’t push for normality in politics and doing political campaigns — it is four months before elections — if you still ban political activities except [to] recruit new members, that is nonsense,” she said.
Last month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who seized power in a 2014 military coup, enacted laws that effectively set a deadline for long-demanded elections no later than May 2019 and as early as February.
The 2014 coup brought down then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of billionaire businessman-cum-politician Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was ousted in a coup in 2006.
Thai politics has long been dominated by infighting involving Thaksin and his “red shirt” allies, who have won every election since 2001, and his opponents aligned with the pro-monarchy “yellow shirt” movement, who have repeatedly orchestrated their forceful demise.
The emergence of a new party divorced from this acrimonious duopoly has garnered excitement among those weary of the strife.
Prayut has yet to nominate any party that he intends to run with and is technically barred from contesting the election, although there are ways in which he could circumvent that restriction.
Prayut also wields extraordinary executive authority under Section 44 of a new constitution the NCPO promoted after seizing power that effectively allows him to take any action in order to safeguard public order.
In September, Prayut relaxed aspects of a ban on political activities that has been in effect since he took power, though many draconian restrictions remain in place, rights groups say.
It is not clear whether the NCPO will determine that donations breach the ban, and VOA was told Wednesday that all representatives of the government were currently too busy to talk.
The office of Election Commission Secretary-General Jarungvith Phumma has not responded to inquiries from VOA. He reportedly told the Bangkok Post that donations were acceptable, provided the party had the permission of the NCPO. Without the donations, Future Forward said it will refuse to participate in the election.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak is an associate professor of international political economy at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. He said the NCPO could ill afford to use donations as grounds to shut down Future Forward.
“The junta’s treatment of the Future Forward party is consequential. If the Future Forward party is suppressed, manipulated, marginalized in a fashion that is not acceptable to the public, then the election will lose legitimacy,” he said.
“We are seeing that the pro-military parties have substantial latitude to raise money, accept donations, organize activities, whereas the anti-military parties have had a much harder time.”
The rapid flow of public donations to Future Forward was unprecedented in Thai politics, he said
“Normally, political parties are financed by individuals, by some local bosses and so on. But this is a party that is showing some broad-based characteristics,” he said, adding the party had systematically campaigned across most Thai provinces.
The party also has developed a significant social media following, despite an explicit ban forbidding campaigning on such platforms.
For now, that restriction remains in place. Accusations of hypocrisy were leveled at Prayut this week, after he launched a suite of his own social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as a personal website.
Pannika, though, welcomed the prime minister's foray into social media, which had attracted a rare outpouring of public criticism on his new pages.
“In social media, he will realize what the people think, what the public think about him,” she said.