On Tuesday 14 November 2023, Sydney University Senior Research Fellow Dr Aim Sinpeng addressed the Institute on the most recent Thai elections, held in May this year.
Aim opened with the story of Ice—the nickname of newly-elected MP Rukchanok Srinork—whose unconventional bike-and-megaphone campaign for Thailand’s progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) helped her unseat some of the country’s most powerful politicians. Ice’s campaign, and the campaigns of MFP candidates generally, were unique in several respects. In a country where vote buying is rampant, Move Forward banned it completely, relying instead on grassroots campaigning. The Party boasted several female candidates, as well as a large number of LGBTQI+ candidates. And, perhaps most importantly, MFP harnessed the power of social media in what Aim dubbed the ‘TikTok election’, articulating a clear and accessible policy agenda that resonated with Thailand’s non-partisan constituency.
Explaining the historical and political context of the May elections, Aim emphasised the enduring significance of the 2014 military coup, in which the National Council for Peace and Order junta assumed control of Thailand’s national administration. They held power for five years, appointing a nominally civilian government in 2019 dominated by the army-aligned People’s State Power party (Palang Pracharath). Many other Thai political parties—including Future Forward, the predecessor of MFP—were dissolved or disbanded. This prompted over five thousand pro-democracy protests from young people across Thailand during the country’s ‘Covid years’, with many expressing discontent about the military and the monarchy. Key issues in the 2023 election thus centred on a lack of support for the current military government and a desire for monarchical reform, fought between two camps: younger, more progressive ‘democrats’ (including MFP); and pro-monarchy, pro-military ‘conservatives’.
MFP swept the elections in a way that surprised political commentators in Thailand and abroad, winning 38% of votes, including the entirety of Bangkok. Drawing on her recent research, Aim argued that the party’s success came down to their masterly branding on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. In a study completed in partnership with TikTok, Aim found that, for the first time in political history, social media was the primary influence on voting decisions across all age groups in Thailand. The most popular hashtag during the election, #election23, was dominated by MFP, with Thai people interacting with and sharing MFP content more than any other party. Their clear branding meant voters understood and identified with their policy agenda—something that most other parties in the electoral race failed to achieve.
Aim acknowledged that winning an election doesn’t mean you get to govern. MFP, despite drafting a memorandum of cooperation with eleven other parties represented in parliament, has been gradually turfed out of government. Despite several years of pro-democracy protests, the growth of new, progressive political parties and the success of MFP at the polls, Thailand has still ended up with a largely conservative, pro-military government—a symptom of autocratic durability in the country. But Aim emphasised that change has already occurred. The diversification of the media ecosystem and changing patterns of political campaigning have resulted in radical shifts in Thailand, even while political corruption persists.
Asked about the dangers of social media platforms like TikTok in elections, Aim said this was an under-researched area that must be addressed to guarantee the integrity of democratic elections into the future. Of particular concern is the spread of misinformation, especially given that social media companies focus most of their content moderation efforts on e-safety. Aim remarked that we can expect to see a significant rise in disinformation and hate speech, requiring greater transparency from social media platforms and improved digital literacy amongst voter populations to combat the negative impacts of manipulation.
Other audience members raised voter demographics beyond Bangkok, the whereabouts and popularity of the Thai King, and the enforcement of mandatory voting. Responding to a question about Thailand’s foreign policy outlook—in particular its hedging of superpower interests in South-East Asia—Aim remarked that the military administration has grown much closer to China since 2014, seeking legitimacy in the aftermath of its takeover. Commenting on the number of Thai people in Australia, Aim confirmed that there were several opportunities for stronger engagement between Thailand and Australia, especially in trade and education. The talk concluded with a question about whether Thai MPs are well-paid. Aim quipped that it costs more to be a Thai MP than one might think, what with all the weddings and funerals they need to attend to get voters on side!
Report by Imogen Biggins, AIIA NSW Intern
From left to right: Thom Dixon (AIIA vice president), Dr Aim Sinpeng and Imogen Biggins