A country for the young: first-time voters in the 2019 general election and how they can change the face of Thai politics

After five years under the junta’s rule, Thailand is finally holding a general election on 24 March. This is the first election in eight years, if we don’t count the 2014 general election, which faced severe obstruction and violence and was subsequently ruled invalid by the Constitutional Court.

Due to this long break, Thailand now has a larger than ever group of first-time voters. According to elect.in.th, in 2011, when the last successful election took place, first-time voters made up 1.96% of all eligible voters, whereas right now, first-time voters make up 13.74%.

The number may seem small when compared to other age groups, but first-time voters are a significant factor which can change the outcome of this election. Far from the idea that first-time voters are all teenagers, the group now range in age from 18 to 25 years, and include students as well as young graduates new to the workforce. The past five years under the junta means that they have never had the right to vote, and it is hard to predict where their vote will go, but if they vote, this group may now be the key to changing the face of Thai politics.

A lifetime of conflict, 1994 – 2019

It is not their numbers alone that make first-time voters important. The oldest first-time voters are 25 years old, and in their lifetime, Thailand has already seen three major political demonstrations: the 2008 protests by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the 2010 protests by the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), and the 2013-2014 protests by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). The country has also been through 2 military coups in the last 13 years: the 2006 coup by the Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) and the 2014 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

For this reason, despite varying degrees of awareness, most first-time voters’ experience of Thai politics has been marked by conflict and instability.

Nichakorn Nutcharoen, a 24-year-old private company employee, said that she remembered when the protests were happening, but she used to feel that they were irrelevant to her life as she grew up far from Bangkok, where most demonstrations happened.

“I know that there are different groups, that there are divisions,” said Nichakorn, “but if there is any protest or violence, I feel that it’s distant and that it’s something that happened only in Bangkok.”

Meanwhile, Natwara Pratchayakul, 24, also a private company employee, said that she has always felt political conflict to be close to home.

“We talked about politics openly at home,” Natwara said, “and I feel like I can say what I think.”

Likewise, Student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal also said that he has always been aware of the situation for the past ten years.

“I was in sixth grade when the 2006 coup happened,” Netiwit said. “My family watches cable TV, ASTV, red shirt TV. I grew up with these kinds of thing. When the PDRC protest happened, I remember it.”

PDRC protestors during their 2014 "Shut Down Bangkok" campaign

Under the NCPO’s rule, young people have had to live in a suffocating atmosphere. They have had to learn where the line is and how not to cross it – essentially that there are limits to their freedom. Most people are aware of the term “attitude adjustment,” used in the early days of the junta’s rule, when former politicians and activists were called in to report to the NCPO, and they remember activists getting arrested for peaceful protests. As a result, young people are now paying more attention to politics than ever.  

When asked when she started to feel that Thailand’s circumstances were not normal, Kukasina Kubaha, now a student at Chulalongkorn University, said that it was immediately after the 2014 coup, when she was walking to school and saw armed soldiers standing along the street. She also said that she began to pay more attention to the political situation when she began to see her more politically active friends affected by the junta’s rule.

“I started to see my activist friends get arrested, so I started to think that this is relevant to my life,” said Kukasina. One of her friends was among the 39 people at the protest at MBK Centre who were arrested earlier last year.

“My friend wasn’t protesting that day,” Kukasina said, “but her name was already on a list, so she also got taken in.”

Leaders of the 'MBK39' group, from left: Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, Surit Piensuwan, Nutta Mahattana, Veera Somkwamkit, and Sombat Boonngamanong

Like many young people, Kukasina’s family warned her not to get too involved in political activism out of the fear that she will be targeted by the authorities. Combined with legislation like the Cyber Security Act, Kukasina said that she felt frustrated.

N (pseudonym), another student at Chulalongkorn University, said that she felt that freedom of expression has been suppressed under the NCPO. N was part of a team of students organizing panel discussions and other activities in her faculty, and for this, she was targeted by the authorities, and she said that this made her feel threatened.

Netiwit, a student activist since his high school days, said he has been facing similar threats. He has been stopped from giving talks he has been invited to give, and officials have spied on him.

But even someone who said that they are not politically active like Nichakorn felt that the situation is not normal. Nichakorn said that she didn’t like it when the military government ordered people to report to them, and the frustration has been building up.

Natwara, on the other hand, admitted that, in the early days of the military rule, she thought it was a good thing that all the protests immediately stopped. Five years on, Natwara has changed her mind. She now feels that nothing has gotten better, and that she is being taken advantage of.

“When they said there is going to be an election, and then they postponed it, I felt that my rights are being limited. I felt frustrated,” said Natwara. “When they first announced that there would be an election, I felt that it’s finally time, because the coup happened exactly when I reached voting age.”

As a result of their lifetime of political instability, some first-time voters feel that history is always repeating itself. Thai politics has apparently gone around in a cycle of protest-crisis-coup since they were children, and it seems like the country is unable to break free of this cycle. The three major demonstrations in the last 25 years were only 2–3 years apart, and the two military coups were only 8 years apart.

“The military coups are the reason why democracy in Thailand has gotten nowhere,” said Netiwit, and N said that she thinks there is something structurally wrong with Thai politics. For them as well as many people their age, Thai politics has not got anywhere in the past decade.

But first-time voters are now more enthusiastic about the election than ever. A survey conducted by the National Institute of Development Administration of 1254 young voters found that 84.93% of the respondents said they will definitely be voting in this election.

As the election draws hear, first-time voters are seeking to inform themselves about the election system, the parties, and the candidates. While former PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban said that parents should urge their children to vote for his party, the Action Coalition for Thailand, because young people only care about being trendy, first-time voters are making sure they know what they are doing and will be making an informed decision at the poll.  

“I have been watching debate shows and looking at the policies,” said Kukasina. “I’m particularly interested in policies about the environment. And I’m also interested in the way each party presents itself.” A survey conducted by King Prajadhipok’s Institute also found that first-time voters choose the party they vote for based on the party leader, the party’s ideologies, and past achievements.

When asked how he is making his decision, Netiwit said that, personally, he takes into consideration each party’s policies, and their position regarding the current military government and the 2017 Constitution, which was drafted under the NCPO’s influence.

Prachatai also recently did a video interview of students at Thammasat University and Ramkhamhaeng University. In the “The Spectre of Thaksin,” the students are asked about their vision of the future and what they think of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

All the students Prachatai interviewed said that they are choosing which party to vote for from their ideology, policy, and one even said that he will be voting for a party who doesn’t support the NCPO’s continuation of power.
Thai election goes online

Another characteristic of the 2019 election which sets it apart from past election is that it is the first election in Thai history in which social media plays a major role. On platforms like Twitter, first-time voters are taking advantage of social media to spread information and speaking out. They are utilizing sites like Twitter and Facebook for discussions and reacting to political events.

Going by their reactions of Twitter and Facebook, this generation of voters are fed up with conflict and anti-democratic actions, and there is nothing the NCPO and Gen Prayut can do to win these netizens over. Not only are they mocking his every attempt to keep up with pop culture, they are also speaking out against everything they see as unfair, or as the NCPO’s attempt to stay in power.

Prayut’s untimely struggle with pop culture

At the beginning of 2019, when it was announced that the election will be postponed again, the hashtag #เลื่อนแม่มึงสิ (“Delayed again, you motherfucker”) trended on Twitter within hours of the announcement as netizens called out the NCPO for, yet again, denying them their right to vote.

On 7 March, when the Constitutional Court of Thailand ruled to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chart Party (TRC) over the party’s nomination of former Princess Ubolratana Mahidol as their candidate for Prime Minister, the hashtag #ยุบให้ตายก็ไม่เลือกลุง (“Dissolved any party and we still won’t vote for uncle”) took first place on Thailand’s Twitter trend. Netizens criticized the NCPO for what they saw as an attempt to get rid of a political opponent and encouraged each other to go out and vote. And just last week, when Gen Prayut referred to Thai people as his children, the hashtag #ใครลูกมึง (“Not your child”) was born.

Dissolve any party and we still won’t vote for you: reactions to the dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party

The hashtag system also lends itself to a crowd-sourced categorization of information. The hashtag #เลือกตั้งนอกราชอาณาจักร (#OverseasVoting) trended all week as people shared information about the problems they faced trying to vote overseas, from missing ballots to long queues at the poll and their posted ballots being returned in the mail. Again, last Sunday, on early voting day, netizens used the hashtag #เลือกตั้งล่วงหน้า (#EarlyVoting) to warn each other of the obstacles they might face going to vote, from long waits to being given the wrong ballot papers. Not only that, they shared advice on how to make voting more convenient, such as checking information on the application Smart Vote before going to the poll, and encouraging each other to endure the long queue and the hot weather through messages like “Just think of Prayut’s face and keep waiting.”

This group of young voters are also digital natives who can spot fake news a mile away. For example, when a rumour spread that the Future Forward Party (FFP) wants to abolish government pensions, Twitter users quickly disproved the rumour by presenting the correct information, which then spread through the ‘retweet’ function. Fake news is rarely ever effective on Facebook and Twitter, and if anything gets put on these platforms, chances are someone out there will be fact-checking it.

And the lesson? It’s no longer easy to keep young voters blind.

Are the leaves turning in Thai politics?

Politics in Thailand has always been a field dominated by the older generation. Out of Thailand’s 29 Prime Ministers, 13 came into office when they were more than 60 years old. A BBC Thai article also noted that, even in this election, while many parties want to win over young voters, their leaders and executives are mostly old men.

BBC Thai reported that only 3 parties in the 2019 have a party leader who is 40 years old or under: FFP under the 40-year-old Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the now dissolved TRC under the 38-year-old Preechapol Pongpanich, and the Thai Civilized Party under the 37-year-old Mongkolkit Suksintharanont. Meanwhile, 18 parties have party leaders who are past retirement age.

But are things changing?

Not only are we seeing a large group of first-time voters in this election, we are also seeing a new generation of MP candidates and candidates for Prime Minister.

Some of these candidates are not entirely new to politics, given that they were born into political families, but this is the first time they themselves have become players in the game. For example, the Chartthaipattana Party is now headed by Kanchana Silpa-archa, the daughter of the late Banharn Silpa-archa, former Prime Minister and former Party leader.

Kanchana Silpa-archa

Meanwhile, the TRC was headed by children of Pheu Thai leaders and Thaksin Shinawatra’s relatives. Its leader was Lt Preechapol Pongpanich, son of a former Thai Rak Thai executive and former Minister of Education during the Yingluck Shinawatra government. Chayika Wongnapachant, Thaksin’s niece, and Rupop Shinawatra, Thaksin’s nephew, were also TRC party executives. TRC party executives are now barred from politics for the next 10 years following the party’s dissolution, but one will have to wait and see what they will do when the ban ends.

Preechapol Pongpanich speaking to reporters after the Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve TRC

On the other hand, there are candidates for whom this election marks their first step into the political field. The Mahachon Party, for example, nominated Palinee “Pauline” Ngarm-pring as one of its three candidates for Prime Minister. Pauline was formerly the founder of the Cheerthai Power group and candidate for President of the Football Association of Thailand, and now she is Thailand’s first-ever transgender candidate for Prime Minister. The party also has Nada Chaiyajit, a trans right activist, as its head of policy.

Pauline Ngarm-pring, the Mahachon Party’s head of strategy, and her first step into politics

Pauline is in her fifties, but she is a new player national politics. When asked why she decided to go into politics, Pauline said that she has always been interested in politics, and she felt that it could be better.

“When I was approached, I thought that maybe I could do something that would be good for Thai politics, and the development of human rights and LGBT rights, so I decided to join,” Pauline said.

And in Chaiyaphum, the Democrat Party is running Nattika Loweera, a former journalist, as one of their MP candidates.

Nattika Loweera (left)

When Prachatai spoke to Nattika two weeks ago, she said that she saw inequality when she worked as a journalist. Realising that journalism can only do so much, she decided to go into politics.

“I am the new generation and a representative of it, a group that will live for 50-60 years from now,” Nattika said, “so I think we should participate in public administration.”

Nattika Loweera: the New Dem candidate in Pheu Thai stronghold

Most of the FFP’s executives are also new politicians. Party leader Thanathorn is a businessman and former Vice President of the Thai Summit Group, while FFP spokesperson Pannika Wanich was a reporter at Voice TV and Secretary-General Piyabutr Saengkanokkul was a university lecturer. FFP promotes itself as a party for the young and knows how to use social media in its favour, which may explain both the party’s and Thanathorn’s popularity amoung young voters, especially young urbanites.

Pannika Wanich (white shirt) at FFP's last event before the election

FFP’s supporters, which the party has christened ‘Futuristas’, call themselves ‘Fah’ – a reference to an old soap opera in which a character with that name is the mistress of a rich older man – and they call Thanathorn ‘Daddy.’ They express their adoration through the hashtag #ฟ้ารักพ่อ (#FahLovesDaddy). They demand selfies at party events, and send him gifts, including bottles of sunscreen. FFP presents itself as the radical new party which openly criticizes the junta, and Thanathorn is the hip new candidate who appears on all kind of programmes, from debate shows to variety shows, awkwardly using internet slang and telling stories of his experience in extreme sports. For many young voters, FFP and Thanathorn are their way out of the cycle of conflict they have been living in.

Thanathorn at FFP's last event before the election

Seeing new faces in Thai politics may be a good sign, but without voters, new politicians can do very little. However, it seems that many first-time voters are counting on new candidates to bring changes to the country. 

In “The Spectre of Thaksin,” a Ramkhamhaeng University student was asked how he chose which party to vote for. He said that he thinks it’s better to vote for new politicians. Meanwhile, Nichakorn said that she wants to see new faces in parliament. “I feel that if there are new people, then I can believe that Thai politics can be changed,” she said. “It’s like placing a bet.” 

They are certainly not alone. The NIDA young voters poll, conducted between 30 January and 2 February 2019 found that, out of the 55.36% of voters who know who they are voting for, 18.74% are voting Pheu Thai and 13.86% said they are voting Future Forward, while a more recent poll of 1266 Chulalongkorn University students found that 70.8% of the respondents said they are voting for Future Forward. In comparison, 16% said that they are voting for Pheu Thai, and only 3.5% said they will vote Palang Pracharat. Of this group, 53.8% would like Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as Prime Minister and 23.7% would like Chatchart Sittiphan, while only 2.8% would like Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

For many young voters, who have been deprived of their voting right for the past five years, it has been too long and today is the end of the line.

On platforms like Twitter, whose demographic is largely millennials and Gen Z, users are calling out the NCPO’s every move and criticizing the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) for every mistake. They are taking a clear stand: we want a free and fair election and we want Prayut out.

“There is so much youth power in this election,” said Kukasina. “I’ve been seeing this narrative from the older generation, that the country will go to ruin because of young people. First-time voters are a large group in this election, and this shows the older generation’s distrust of the younger generation. They don’t trust us. They think we’re not important.”

Some young voters, like N and Natwara, are concerned that the EC is trying to rig in the election in the NCPO’s favour. They are concerned about the junta staying in power, and whether there will be more protests or another coup. Some fears that all of the ECT’s blunders during overseas voting and early voting may be a cause for the election to be invalidated. Nevertheless, many voters think that this is all the more reason for them to vote. For these young people, there is no other way.

“[This election] is the beginning of the fight for democracy and human rights,” said Netiwit. This group of first-time voters no longer tolerate anti-democratic actions, and after their voice has been essentially silenced for the past five years, they are making themselves heard.

And while this election may not be Thailand’s way out, it is certainly a turning point. Change takes time, but it has to start somewhere, and if first-time voters turn up at the poll en masse on 24 March, they are more than capable of bringing about the change they have been hoping for.