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Campaigning without Vote Canvassers: Part I of the Futurista Campaigning

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

By Aim Sinpeng

Note: This is part of my ongoing research on the ‘Future Forward’s Phenomenon Project.’

Credit: Photo: A cartoon depicting Thanathorn selling party products to raise funds while his opponent begged for donations.

What happens to an election campaign when one removes vote canvassing and vote buying from the equation? This is the challenge Future Forward Party constituency candidates had to contend with in the 2019 election. How does not using vote canvassers impact their campaigning strategy?

No one knew the answer at the beginning. There was no guide book on how to campaign this way. Worse, FFP candidates had just a little over a month to campaign and almost all of them were political rookies. They did not come from political families. There was no money from the party to help them campaign, other than paying for their brochures and some signage. FFP was a brand new party with no legacy politicians.

The FFP constituency candidates were effectively faced with an impossible task. Many were told by party leaders to “just do their best” and hope to gather whatever support they could get just to cobble together enough votes for party-list seats. Most candidates had no hope of winning.

But as Selway and Hicken outline in their previous report, against all the odds the FFP did quite spectacularly at the constituency level.

“We don’t use vote canvassers (huakhanaen). It’s against our policy.” as Chor Pannika Wanich, Future Forward Party’s spokesperson and a recently elected party-list MP explained to me. FFP has zero tolerance policy towards vote buying and vote canvassing. Party leaders also trained their candidates not to campaign “the old way” and to stay away from influential people (poo mee itthiphon orchao pho).

Scholars of Thai politics have long understood that vote buying was essential to electoral campaigning success, much like in neighbouringcountriessuch as the Philippines and Indonesia. As Hicken argues, the use of voter canvassers and the practice of vote buying is an important way to cultivate personal support networks and hedge against the uncertainty of election outcome. Vote brokerage in Thailand has often centred on local patrons and influencers, such as village headmen, kamnan, and various formerheads of local administrative units such as the Subdistrict Administrative Organization (SAO). These influential figures bring with them not just their networks, but their authoritative positions in society help drive support for their chosen candidates. Money is then used to increase the competitiveness of a candidate and reward people in exchange for their votes.

Credit: Future Forward Party Chiang Rai page. Photo of FFP MPs

Based on extensive interviews with more than fifty FFP successful constituency candidates[1] and heads of provincial party units, I argue that the FFP target vote base was the least likely to be persuaded by vote buying to begin with. Party internal polls have suggested that FFP supporters were “wealthier, higher educated, online, and in urban areas.”[2] Existing research on vote buying has shown that vote buying works best when the target is poor and less educated voters living in low-quality housing. FFP voters were also believed to be ideologically opposed to the incumbent and its allies: they oppose military dictatorship and patronage or ‘old-style’ politics. As Nichter argues, the potential for vote buying reduces as the ideological distance between the incumbent and the opposition grows. The polarization of Thai politics since 2006 has meant that vote buying, while still common, has become less important in determining how people vote. In a way, FFP was advancing a trend that was already growing in Thailand.

But, Stokes points out in her influential article on vote buying in Argentina that voters most susceptible to vote buying along the policy space are those “weakly opposed to machine politics.” Weakly opposed voters prefer to vote for the opposition, but they will support the machines if it offers a better deal. If this argument is correct then it would be very unlikely for FFP candidates to win in constituencies of “strongholds” – be it the incumbent strongholds or another party’s strongholds, like the Democrats or Pheu Thai, because FFP is new, has no established support base, and offers no money. The likelihood of defeat would be even greater if such strongholds are outside urban centres whose populace was poorer and less educated than average.

If this theory were correct, Pheeradech Kamsamut and Sakdinai Numnu would have lost. Pheeradech, at the age of 32 with no political experience, won the borderland district of Mae Sai-Chiang Sane-Doi Luang. Chiang Rai’s district 6 has long been the red-shirt heartland since the Thai Rak Thai days. “The party told me not to worry about winning. We had no hope of winning. Just do my best so we could get some votes that would translate into party-list seats). Sakdinai, on the other hand, was running for office in Trat – the heartland of the Democrat Party. How did these two candidates pull it off?

People wanted change more than money.

“In Trat, people used to live well, they could get by easily with fishing and tourism. But everything changed after the coup when the EU boycotted our products and the NCPO passed the new fisheries law that would benefit big agro companies. We used to have 1,000 boats out in Trat – they dropped to 90 boats. People in Trat for the first time realized how politics could directly affect them, their livelihood. The election time came, a handout of 500 or even a 1,000 baht from a political party was a joke compared to the actual money lost in the past 5 years. Trat people wanted change from a party that could rehabilitate the local fishing economy.”

In Chiang Rai’s borderland, it was the reluctant former Pheu Thai supporters who turned ‘orange’ after a series of negative campaigns against FFP’s leader, Thanathorn.

“At first I walked 10 kms a day to see people in my constituency, no one wanted to talk to me. I couldn’t get more than 100 people who would accept my brochures. People did not know what FFP was. Then there was so many bad press against Thanathorn, people could see the injustice, the unfairness, the double standard, we became very popular. People would stop me in the middle of a road, while they were riding their motor bikes to take all my brochures, honking at us. I went through 1,000 brochures a day, and people kept taking selfies of their FFP membership cards. People felt bad for us. So many people contacted us to buy FFP products online, then when the ECT did not allow us to sell our goods online, people wanted it even more. The more it felt like we were being bullied, the more popular we became.”

In my next post, I will discuss the types and methods of networking FFP constituency candidates used during their campaigns.



[1]Successful candidates include candidates who have won at the constituency level or nearly won (vote difference is less than 10% compared to the winners’).

[2]Based on internal poll results discussed by Pannika Wanich during an interview.

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