- Social Media:Hashtag #Futurista
The Thai elections on 24 March 2019 witnessed two new game-changing factors: first-time voters and the impact of social media. Approximately 7.4 million people aged between 18 and 25 were eligible to cast their ballot for the first time; many of them felt no loyalty to existing political parties.1 These first-time voters had grown up in a period of political turmoil and societal conflicts, including the 2006 and 2014 coups and five rounds of major street protests. The turbulence of 2006–14 was followed by five tightly-controlled years under the junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). Moreover, the NCPO era was overshadowed by collective social uncertainty during the fin-de-siècle years of His Majesty King Rama IX and the onset of King Rama X's reign from late 2016. Against the backdrop of Thailand's political turmoil, social media and online communications become ubiquitous. Although a large urban–rural divide in the use of computers and tablets remains, smartphone usage is popular in both urban and rural areas.2 This provides an environment for direct communications between politicians and voters, as well as among voters, via social media platforms, without the complication of middlemen and physical locations.
The electoral success of the newly-established Future Forward Party surprised political practitioners and observers alike. Future Forward won 31 constituencies and 50 party-list seats, as well as 6,330,617 votes nationwide, making them the third most popular party in the elections.3 The Future Forward campaign team, the Thai media and political observers broadly agree that the party owed its electoral success to the youthful image of its leader, Thanathorn [End Page 170] Juangroongruangkit, combined with the effective use of social media and virtual campaigning, allowing it to draw votes from the younger generation and first-time voters. This article is a preliminary attempt to give the reader a flavour of the social media campaign during the 2019 Thai elections, with a focus on Future Forward's phenomenal success. More in-depth field research is needed, however, to understand the effect of social media campaigns on Thailand's political evolution.
Thai electoral politics has been heavily based on networks of vote-canvassers who have acted as middle men between politicians and voters during and outside of election campaigns, fostering reciprocal patronage relationships.4 From the outset, Future Forward indicated that it would not rely on vote-canvassers, vote-buying or patronage to gain votes. Rejecting the use of vote-canvassing networks for ideological reasons, the party opted to use social media and online communication as its main campaign tools. Throughout the campaign, Future Forward recruited core supporters—dubbed "Futuristas"—to act as their canvassers. These Futuristas shared Future Forward's manifesto and leader's speeches online, as well as engaged their parents, relatives and friends offline to vote for the party.
A quick glance at the 2019 election statistics seems to suggest that Future Forward is a youth party whose 6.33 million votes nationwide came largely from the 7.3 million first-time voters.5 Future Forward, however, insists that its members and supporters are drawn from various age groups.6 To verify this claim, the author conducted post-election voice call interviews with 56 persons drawn from 20 families from various constituencies in Bangkok. The 20 families are composed of a father and/or mother who are older than 50, and their children aged between 19 and 32. Nine of these families had voted for the Pheu Thai Party in the 2014 elections. The other 11 families would have voted for the Democrat Party in the 2014 elections, but abstained when the Democrats decided to boycott the polls.
For the families that had previously voted for Pheu Thai, all nine sets of children voted for Future Forward, with five sets being first-time voters. Out of the remaining four sets of children who were not first-time voters, two sets had previously voted for Pheu Thai in 2014 and one had boycotted the elections because of the Democrat Party's decision not to run. The fourth set did not vote...