BANGKOK -- Thailand's new Future Forward party is rapidly emerging as an unexpected wild-card in the country's long-awaited general election, and could prove pivotal in the formation of the next government.
Formed only in March by businessman Thanathorn Juangrongruangkit, the party has drawn vast support from the country's young by presenting itself as an alternative choice for anti-junta voters.
With huge numbers set to enter the electorate for the first time, this new force in Thai politics could play a crucial role in the outcome on March 24.
Future Forward was backed by 7.5% of respondents in a nationwide opinion poll run by the Bangkok Post on Feb. 12 and 13. That fell below the 9.3% garnered by Pheu Thai, a party linked to exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, but above the pro-junta Palang Pracharat Party's 7.0%.
When asked for a favorite prime ministerial candidate, however, just 6.6% endorsed Thanathorn, compared with 12% who picked junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha and 8.1% opting for Pheu Thai's Sudarat Keyuraphan.
Tellingly, around two-thirds in both polls said they were undecided, indicating just how difficult it is to predict the result.
Thanathorn founded Future Forward on a pro-democracy agenda that he claims differentiates it from the country's traditional power groups. Its members are youthful collection of academics, entrepreneurs and activists from a diverse range of fields.
"We have to review the tank contract with China and see if it could be amended or canceled," said the 40-year-old, drawing the loudest cheer at a panel discussion with other candidates on Feb. 7.
Military spending has become a particularly contentious issue. Prayuth's government set the 2019 defense budget at 227 billion baht ($7 billion), a 4% increase from the previous year, while several anti-junta parties have suggested cutting it by 10%.
Thanathorn stepped down from his role as an executive at Thai Summit Group, the auto parts manufacturer his family owns, in order to focus exclusively on politics. Many of Future Forward's policies, like fighting inequality, pushing for decentralization and reducing military spending, resonate in poorer areas of northern and northeastern Thailand -- traditional Thaksin territory.
Many in the largely agricultural region say their lives have not improved in five years under junta rule.
Future Forward was endorsed by 21.2% respondents in the northeast in an opinion poll run by Khon Kaen University, coming second to Pheu Thai with 44.8%. Palang Pracharat, on the other hand, was backed by just 7.4%.
Another potentially crucial demographic will be the roughly six million voters -- out of a total of 50 million -- who have come of age since the last election eight years ago. Very little is known about their voting behavior, but many speculate that the party's message will appeal to first-timers, and Future Forward has made full use of social media to reach as many potential supporters as possible.
Eager to portray himself as someone ordinary people can relate to, the billionaire arrived for candidate registration on Feb. 4 by public bus wearing an open-collar white shirt, rather than being chauffeured to the venue and donning a loud sweater emblazoned with campaign slogans like some of his peers.
The new party is also potentially set to gain from the pro-Thaksin Thai Raksa Chart Party's seemingly maladroit attempts to nominate Princess Ubolratana as one of its candidates for the premiership.
The Election Commission of Thailand has filed a motion with the Constitutional Court contesting the legality of involving a member of the royal family in politics. The court will start considering the case on Feb. 27.
Thai Raksa Chart was endorsed by 7.5% in the Khon Kaen University survey, and if it is forced to disband by a court ruling, many of its supporters will be expected to turn to other anti-junta parties, including Future Forward.
This election has been so difficult to call that few media outlets or think tanks have ventured a prediction on the seat count, especially after the attempted nomination of the princess cast further uncertainty over proceedings.
As things develop, however, many specialists foresee Future Forward playing a pivotal role in the formation of a ruling coalition.
"Thanathorn has been trying to distance his party from Thaksin's allies," said Yuji Mizukami, a visiting research fellow at Thammasat University. "But the Thaksin side may approach Future Forward, if they need its seats to reach majority in the lower house."
Some say that Thaksin is already maneuvering for such a deal, with his choice of words in a recent tweet having set tongues wagging.
But while the party's outspoken nature has struck the right chord with young people, it may have landed its leadership in hot water.
Police said on Wednesday that they were seeking the prosecution of Thanathorn and two other Future Forward executives over a speech the leader made on Facebook last June, criticizing the ruling junta. The authorities claim that they have "uploaded false information." The party has denied the charges, saying that the speech was based on information that had already been made public, according to reports.
If convicted, the three could face five years in prison under the Computer Crime Act and would be automatically disqualified from entering politics.