BANGKOK - From an upstart entrepreneur to a transgender person hoping to find a political voice for the LGBT community, this Sunday’s Thai election is proving inclusive even if the chances of victory among the smaller parties remain slim.
It’s an eclectic mix of candidates with personality politics and single-issue platforms firmly on the agenda. Sports stars and a beauty queen have been enlisted, offering a stark contrast to the establishment faces of Thailand’s military rulers.
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Among them is transgender filmmaker Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, who decided to run for office with the Future Forward Party after a five-year legal battle resulted in her film,Insects in the Backyard, finally being shown after a nude scene was edited out.
“Five years to make a three-second cut,” she said from Future Forward’s Bangkok office.?
She demurred when asked if her sexual orientation had contributed to the ban on a film that dealt with student prostitutes, but she said Future Forward could win and that the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community drove her policies.
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Future Forward was founded a year ago and has thrived under youthful entrepreneur Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, who has capitalized on social media and the potential youth and LGBT vote, upsetting the military junta of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
“I think this election is a great opportunity to give to the Thai people. To run for prime minister, to vote for a group of people who make decisions, run the country (and) go forward,” Tanwarin said.
She is not the only transgender in this political race, which hopes to return Thailand to a “democracy” after five years of military rule.
The Mahachon Party has up to 20 LGBT candidates contesting the ballot with Pauline Ngarmpring, a former prominent figure in Thai football, among them.
Their chances are bolstered by the demographics. In Thailand, the LGBT community boasts numbers of around 7 million, or about 13 percent of the 52 million people expected to vote.
“I want to be a person who represents the minority people in Thailand because for me — LGBT people — we have not the right to marry in a same-sex marriage. Legally, by law, we cannot adopt children,” Tanwarin added.
Prayut, standing as leader of his Phalang Pracharat, seen as a proxy party for continued military rule, is widely expected to become the next prime minister, which under a new constitution will be elected from a joint sitting of parliament.
The 250 members of the Senate will all be appointed by the military, with political parties contesting 500 seats in the House of Representatives. That gives Prayut a substantial head start over his main rival Peu Thai, the party of former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra.
Thanathorn, however, is proving popular. He has turned himself into a political rock star, winning comparisons with former U.S. President Barack Obama, mounted on policies that include a cut to the arms budget and an end to military conscription.
Chart Pattana, known as the sports party, has touted Olympic taekwondo bronze medalist Yaowapa Burapolchai and former Miss Thailand World Melisa Mahapol among its candidates.
Other parties such as Bhumjaithai are also running a youth agenda, campaigning for the full legalization of marijuana, while favoring services the military finds disagreeable, including car and homesharing services like Grab and Airbnb.
Sairam Prakaikis, a leadership trainer with Future Forward, said personalities mattered in this poll, with candidates wanting to establish themselves in an electorate starved of politics and alternative leaders since Yingluck was ousted by the military in 2014.
It’s also political play for the youth vote, which at between 7 and 8 million people is comparable in size with the LGBT community.
“I think most of the Future Forward Party supporters, they’re tired of the conflict between red and yellow. Tired of the conflict between Pheu Thai and Phachatipat,” Sairam said.
He was referring to the years of color-coded protests and turmoil that often erupted before the coup with Thaksin’s red shirts, and Pheu Thai at odds with the yellow shirts and Democrats or Prachatipat.
“The second group of people is tired of the dictatorship, tired of the military regime,” he said. “I consider myself in the third group. You can call me an idealist, but I think Thanathorn and his team, our ideology, we can change Thai politics.”
Future Forward has even enlisted Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, who found fame after his arrest for brewing homemade beer.
A new Thailand
Thai historian Chris Baker notes a generational shift between those who grew up during the Cold War and are now running the country and voters younger than 40 who see themselves as part of a “kind of new Thailand.”
“The new generation grew up in a very different world, and they think of themselves much more as being modern and cosmopolitan,” he said. “That is the reason why the Future Forward Party seems be doing much better than what people thought.”