This Week in Asia

The law is after him, the ladies call him "daddy", and he's running in Thailand's impending elections promising a welfare state.

As the March 24 polls draw nearer, the 40-year-old scion of Thailand's biggest auto-parts manufacturer is emerging as a darling among millennials - many of whom are disenchanted with long-standing strife between the "red shirts" and "yellow shirts" that have dominated the kingdom's politics.

And with some seven million young people - equal to the population of Hong Kong - set to vote for the first time, the growing support for Thanathorn could mean his upstart Future Forward Party may be a power broker in the aftermath of the polls. The surest hints of that came this week.

As prosecutors stepped up investigations over two alleged transgressions by Thanathorn, the billionaire's unfazed supporters thronged to a rally in the capital Bangkok to show their support. He was treated like a rock star, particularly by his adoring female fans. Hundreds mobbed him with the hope of snagging a selfie, and they cried with delight as he waded through a sea of outstretched hands: "Fah Rak Por!"

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit campaigns in Thailand's eastern province of Prachinburi. Photo: Handout

The phrase, meaning "Fah Loves Daddy!" is from a popular Thai soap opera in which a working class woman, Fah, has an older "sugar daddy". Thanathorn has embraced the oddball catchphrase, replying on Twitter to one fan that "Daddy loves Fah too!".

This week, posts with the hashtags #fahlovesdaddy and #savethanathorn were trending on the social media platform - on which the billionaire and his party hold their own against establishment political players.

Thanathorn's legal troubles include a case involving the spread of "false information" about the ruling junta, and another one accusing him of posting inaccurate information about himself on his party's website. Independent observers say both cases are on shaky legal ground. Commenting on one of the cases, Thanathorn this week suggested legal action was being "rushed" ahead of the polls. Ensnared by legal trouble or not, political analysts say the junta - vying to stay in power after the election through various proxies - are wary of the threat Thanathorn poses.

Results of a nationwide poll released this week showed the Future Forward Party leading its establishment rivals, albeit by a thin margin.

Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha. Photo: AP

Until recently, most observers saw the polls as a mere formality for junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is seeking to return as prime minister with the Palang Pracharat Party, a military proxy. The electoral contest is being held under controversial new rules his ruling clique devised following their 2014 seizure of power.

The rules significantly handicap the political parties backed by Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister whose bloc the pro-military forces are seeking to demolish for good in this election. But if Thanathorn's support translates to votes, he could be a game changer.

Some have suggested his party could win up to 100 seats in the lower-house contest involving 500 constituencies. "You cannot underestimate the younger generation," said Pipad Krajaejun, an assistant professor of history at Thailand's Thammasat University.

Describing the frenzy around the chiselled billionaire as "Thanathorn fever", Pipad said viewing the politician as a sex symbol missed the point. "The phenomenon shows that [young Thai voters] want to pick their own political candidates and to see democracy in Thailand, which will bring them freedom of expression," said the professor.

"On the surface, it is a craze over Thanathorn's sex appeal but it is really a way to say something indirectly to power when you cannot speak truth to power."

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Photo: Reuters

On the policy front, Thanathorn's party has shown its political chops with a platform that observers like Pipad say taps into the main grievances of both young people and the middle class.

A graduate of New York University's Stern School of Business, Thanathorn has been championing the alleviation of the country's widening income gap.

Local media for years have referred to him as the "billionaire peasant". Upon launching his party last year he said he came "from the 1 per cent, but I represent the 99 per cent".

He champions the devolution of powers, especially in the poorer Isaan region that for the past two decades has been a solid vote winner for the Shinawatra bloc. "We must remove the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent the provinces of all regions, including Isaan, from developing themselves," he said last year.

Among his proposals for redistributing wealth are the removal of tax breaks for the wealthy, antitrust measures to break up large oligarchies, and a doubling of government cash transfers to low-income citizens.

The one-time Shinawatra supporter says his policies are distinct from that of the powerful bloc - even though commentators say his party might join the likes of the Pheu Thai and Thai Raksa Chart parties to form a coalition government.

Those links could be Thanathorn's Achilles' Heel because of the polarising effect Thaksin and his sister Yingluck have on the public. Both are former prime ministers toppled by coups who now live in exile.

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit campaigns in Thailand's eastern province of Prachinburi. Photo: Handout

The stand off between Thaksin's red-shirts and the military came to a head in street demonstrations in Bangkok in 2010, when nearly 100 people were killed.

Thanathorn's past alignment with the red-shirts - which he makes no effort to hide - has come back to haunt him, with pictures of him at protests circulating online.

His opponents have used those images to brand him a "city burner", a term often used to refer to red-shirts.

Thanathorn, who co-founded the Future Forward Party last year with the likes of Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, a prominent law professor, has said he was unperturbed by the attacks.

He wrote on Twitter: "Just wash the mud stains off and move forward. We don't have much time. Let's use it to create a better future for millions of people instead."

Asked about a potential alliance with Shinawatra forces, Pannika Wanich, a spokesman for the Future Forward Party, said the party would not compromise on key principles - ending junta rule, changing the constitution designed by the generals, and eradicating "the repercussions of the coup".

The party was also against individuals who are not contesting the election being made prime ministerial candidates, Pannika said.

That alluded to the now-aborted candidacy of King Maha Vajiralongkorn's elder sister, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya, as the prime ministerial candidate for one of the Shinawatra-aligned parties. "These are our conditions. It doesn't matter which party we join, it's about principle," Pannika said.

"We want to raise the bar in politics, no more secret deals, no more old style power-broking over a dining table."

And that exacting stance - along with "daddy" Thanathorn's rock-star persona - is what supporters like Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 22, say could make the Future Forward Party the black horse of the election.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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