The battle to win over millions of first-time and undecided Thai voters is increasingly being fought online as the military-run government bans campaigning ahead of a general election expected on Feb. 24.
While the junta in September eased its ban on political activity, allowing parties to raise money and elect leaders, electoral campaigning and political gatherings of more than five people continue to be prohibited.
“There’s an opening for everybody, because there’s a group of 7 million first-time voters,” former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party, said in an interview in Bangkok.
“They’re largely undecided. We’re specifically addressing this group. We’re using social media — but not breaking the junta order of not campaigning online,” he added.
Aside from first-time voters are the millions more who have yet to make up their minds, more than half of 9,000 people surveyed across Thailand last month by tycoon-turned-politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward party said they were undecided.
That is consistent with the party’s past three polls, he said.
Bangkok has the world’s largest active urban Facebook user base at 22 million, research by We Are Social and Hootsuite showed, and Thailand ranks eighth overall with 51 million — about three-quarters of the population.
“Social media will demonstrate its fullest potential in the next three months,” Thanathorn said in an interview in Bangkok last week. “Because of the arrival of social media, the past election statistics aren’t valid anymore.”
A spur-of-the moment Facebook Live event by Future Forward in Bangkok rapidly garnered 50,000 viewers, some of whom went to the event to watch in person, Thanathorn said.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has created Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, and launched a Web site amid speculation he would tie up with a political party and seek to return as prime minister.
A rap song criticizing the military administration provides a glimpse of the online battle, garnering more than 41 million YouTube views in about a month, as well as the ire of a junta unaccustomed to sharp attacks.
Officials initially considered legal action under the Computer Crimes Act to quash the video, before opting to release a rival song that has since received 4.6 million views.
“There’s a real shift in sentiment and voters under 25 do not want military control,” said Duncan McCargo, professor at the University of Leeds and an expert on Thai politics. “This group of people has the most stake in the future and is the group that participates most in political discussions on social media.”
However, parties say that mobilizing young people to vote might be a difficult task.
“Around the world, this is the group that has the lowest turnout,” Abhisit said, adding that the election could go down to the wire as political narratives develop in the last days of campaigning.
Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra or his allies have won every election since 2001, only to be unseated by the courts or military.
The discord reflects deep fissures in Thai society between urban royalists, known as the “yellow shirts,” and Thaksin and his rural support base, the “red shirts.”
Next year is shaping up to be a test of whether these bitter divisions are to flare up again.
Already, Thanathorn has been charged under the Computer Crimes Act for allegedly spreading false information online, a claim he denies.
While the military government says the act helps to prevent the spread of false and damaging information, critics say it risks restricting free speech.
“The influence of social media will be clearer this time than in the previous elections,” said Punchada Sirivunnabood, associate professor at Mahidol University’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities. “Seven million voters with access to the Internet could really change the political landscape.”
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