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Youth Political Participation in Thai, Indonesian, and Cambodian Elections

06 Jun 2023
By Gabriele Natalia Siahaan
English: Protesters displaying three-finger salute in front of Democracy Monument at August 16 protest. Source: Milktea2020/

The results of Thailand’s 14 May election demonstrates that youths in Southeast Asia are important agents of political change. As Cambodia and Indonesia soon head to the polls, many will be watching this young and energetic participation. 

Unofficial results of Thailand’s election show that the opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) has won the largest number of seats in the lower house of parliament, largely attributed to youths as the major electorate. The MFP is emblematic of the younger population given its “radical” reform agenda against the Thai conservative establishment, including rewriting the constitution and legalising same-sex marriage. Despite MFP’s victory, the military and conservative members of parliament are likely to employ legal and bureaucratic tools to derail an MFP-led administration.

Since the military coup in 2014, Thai youths have been pushing for democratic reforms, including curbing the power of the monarchy, which peaked during the mass pro-democracy protests in 2019-2021. The protests dwindled amid the military’s draconian laws under the pretext of COVID-19 prevention and the ensuing threat of incarceration thereafter.

In the lead-up to the May election, Thai youths resorted to social media – primarily TikTok – to advocate and campaign for MFP, including creating special filters that displayed MFP leaders. Youths also worked with international organisations to galvanise voters by holding public dialogues in rural provinces on political participation and the importance of having political candidates with a strong commitment to civil liberties and human rights. Civil society organisations mobilised a nationwide effort to independently verify the election results through systematic observation, which was key to delivering a competitive election. Though political uncertainties remain, Thai youths are hopeful of a more democratic Thailand to come.

A similar spirit is observed among youths in Indonesia who have recently been pushing for more progressive socio-economic policies, such as job security, healthcare, climate action, and protection against sexual violence and gender discrimination. National research institutes find that Indonesian youths are increasingly discontent with the oligarchs and will prioritise integrity and non-corruption when voting for the next presidential candidate.

As youths account for 54 percent of the total electorates in the upcoming 2024 general elections, the Indonesian Electoral Commission has partnered with universities and advocacy groups to promote youth political participation. Their efforts are likely to have limited success, however, as oligarch-dominated political parties in the country continue to treat youths as an election commodity with little regard for their political aspirations. For instance, political parties have been found to use incentives such as free tickets to K-Pop concerts to entice younger voters rather than offering concrete policies. The Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) offers an important case study in this respect. Despite claiming itself to be the party of youth, PSI has failed to retain its key members and has been criticised for seeking popularity through polarisation instead of genuinely reflecting youths’ political demands.

Preliminary opinion polls find that though Millennials and Gen-Z view the prospects of having younger candidates like Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan run for the 2024 presidency positively, youths are also pessimistic that these candidates will be able to bring substantive reforms with oligarchs likely to override their power in party politics.

The disregard for youths’ political aspirations is even more apparent in Cambodia, where the government has used violence and arrests for any perceived “seditious” activities, including social media posts critical of the ruling regime. The government has also stepped up attacks on members of the opposition and has imposed arbitrary regulations to ensure Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership continues unopposed. On 15 May, the Cambodian government disqualified the main opposition Candlelight Party from running in the July national elections, which means that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will run virtually unopposed.

Under heavy military repression and political constraints, Cambodian youths are very restricted in their political movements and are often forced to resorting to occasional online petitions against the government and organising protests with diasporas in neighboring countries like Thailand.

Though Cambodian youths are unlikely to have a significant say in the forthcoming general election, they are perceived to be a major political force that could influence Hun Sen’s succession plan. Last March, Hun Sen strongly hinted that he intended to step down when a new government is installed after the election. However, it is considered that he will likely retain some political power by running for commune chief candidate. Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, will be running for a parliamentary seat in the July elections and is likely to succeed him as prime minister.

Since 2020, Hun Manet has served as the head of the CPP’s youth wing to expand the party’s support among Cambodian youths domestically and internationally. Hun Manet is also attempting to win the hearts of the younger population by providing scholarships and supporting tech startups, reiterating that youths are a strong political force in the country. It remains to be seen how Hun Sen seeks to ensure a smooth succession. The prime minister could risk inflaming existing dissatisfactions among Cambodian youths who may not buy into a continued reign of the Hun clan.

There is a clear longing among Southeast Asian youths to participate in electoral politics and advocate for greater democratic practices and progressive socio-economic policies. These efforts are actively silenced by the military, oligarchs, and political dynasties. The question is when will this longing cease and start becoming a real force for change?

Gabriele Natalia Siahaan is an Asia Pacific regional intelligence analyst. She graduated with a Master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies from the ANU. She has a passion for Southeast Asian socio-political affairs and is actively involved in the ASEAN community.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.