by Joel Sawat Selway*
Figure 1. Comparison of preference for FFP, All Voters (Left), 18-29 (Right)
This is a more in-depth analysis of my recent Washington Post article here.
Since the March 2019 elections, much of the political rivalry has been between the military’s Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) and the third-largest party in the legislature, the Future Forward Party (FFP). FFP has been vocally anti-junta from its inception, and this didn’t slow after the polls closed. Among its numerous challenges to the Prayuth government, FFP has called for the military budgetto be slashed, led a censure motionagainst Prayuth and members of his cabinet, called for military reformsin the wake of the Khorat shootings, and most recently moved for a study on preventing coups. This vocalness is surely one reason why the military powers that be went after Future Forward, dissolving it this past Friday in a landmark case by the Constitutional Court over alleged election finances irregularities.
But is a party that managed to secure just over 17% of the vote a threat to the military in other ways? In a Washington Post article on Allen Hicken and I wrote just after the elections last year, we showed that FFP was competing with PPRP in key areas in Bangkok, the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan area, and the East. I revisit this question of geographic competition in this article, but it has become clearer that region isn’t the most important divide when it comes to FFP and the military government. The generational divide seems to have come to the forefront. The student protests across the country in reaction to the dissolution of FFP attest to this phenomenon. These protests are reminiscent less of past student protests in Thailand (e.g. 6 October), and moreso of the countrywide university protests that toppled the dictator Suharto in neighboring Indonesia. So, let’s look at age and partisanship in more detail.
Last month, I completed an online survey of 5,553 people of voting age in Thailand. The quota-based survey was subsequently weighted for age, income, region, and the party they voted for in the 2019 elections. Online sampling pools in Thailand skew towards young, high income, urban demographics, so the quotas and weighting were needed to approximate a nationally-representative sample. Without weighting, the sample skewed heavily towards Future Forward voters. This, in and of itself, is instructive. The up and coming generation of high-income, urban youths are heavily in favor of FFP. After weighting the online sample, however, it is still apparent that age matters tremendously.
First, let’s compare the difference in vote attained in 2019 with the number of people who just under one year later said that each party was their preferred party. Table 1 shows that in January 2020, Future Forward was the most preferred party of the Thai electorate, with 25.85% of respondents listing them as their preferred party. FFP is followed by the highest seat-getting party in 2019 and the traditional opposition party, Pheu Thai, with 23.87%. PPRP has dropped 3.51%, with only 18.65% of people stating them as their preferred party. Bhumjaithai similarly drops, while the Democrat Party rises by about 3%. These results echo a National Institute for Development Administration (NIDA) poll in December in which 31% of the respondents said FFP leader Thanathorn was the most suitable person to be Prime Minister (no other person received as high a proportion).
Table 1. Party Preference vs. Vote in 2019 Elections
So, there is certainly a general electoral threat posed by FFP. And this threat is a ticking time bomb, as its support is heavily weighted towards younger voters. Table 2 shows stated party preference broken down by age. Over 40% of voters aged 18-29 prefer FFP. In contrast, only 9.91% of people aged 55 and over prefer FFP. But it is not just the youngest cohort, those of university age, that prefer FFP. The second-youngest cohort also prefers FFP. So, age matters.
Table 2. Party Preference by Age
Figure 1 shows how this generational pattern breaks down by region. I use a 13-region classification, splitting the Northeast into Upper, Middle, and Lower regions; the North into Upper and Lower regions, and separate the Deep South from the rest of the Southern region. As darker shades represent higher levels of support, the first observation is clearly that for the 18-29 demographic (right map), FFP is more popular than the nationwide average in every region (left map). Second, as in the March 2019 elections, support for FFP is highest in the Central Thai heartlands, especially Bangkok, the East, and the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan area. This pattern persists for the younger demographic. Indeed, the level of support they are enjoying in Central Thailand amongst the young, the same areas in which they went head-to-head with PPRP in the last elections, in many cases only narrowly losing, suggests that perhaps more anything, PPRP sees FFP as an electoral threat. With hundreds of thousands of voters being added to the electoral rolls each year, and most of them preferring FFP, the military seems to be cutting the head off the beast before it grows too large.
We can also see that over 30% of 18-29 year olds in the Upper North (Lanna) prefer Future Forward. This accords with qualitative interviews I undertook there last summer. Amongst the young, Future Forward is rapidly growing in popularity. This youngest generation has less of the memory of the mass Red Shirt movements and sees Pheu Thai as good, but FFP as better given their clearer defiance of the military, commitment to anti-corruption, and unwillingness to engage in votebuying.
Finally, let’s look at how income plays into all this. Given that young people have lower incomes, it is not surprising that support is highest for Future Forward amongst the lowest income group. In contrast, the highest income group strongly prefers PPRP.
Table 3. Party support by income
We can see that for the youngest cohort, however, that income matters less. In fact, amongst the highest income group, FFP is still the most popular party with 30.98% of 18-29 year olds preferring Future Forward.
Table 4. Party support by income, ages 18-29
What do we learn from all this? First, region still matters. Pheu Thai still dominates in the North and Northeast and the Democrats still dominate in the South. Though FFP is making some in-roads in the North, the real battle is in the Central Thai heartlands, including the regions of the Lower North, West, Upper Central, Greater Bangkok Metropolitan, Bangkok Metropolis, and the East. Especially in those last three regions, FFP poses an electoral threat to PPRP. The battle over the Central Heartlands, however, is amplified when age is taken into consideration. Younger generations, both 18-29 and 30-39 prefer FFP. Thus, it is highly likely that were the elections to be ran again, that FFP would take away many of the constituency seats as well as PR vote share from PPRP.
This is a threat PPRP sees as more imminent than Pheu Thai, which has remained fairly docile since the March 2019 elections. Moreover, the Pheu Thai threat was mostly outside of Bangkok, by “Lao” or “Lanna” regions that could easily be accused of being non-Thai. In contrast, FFP is a Central Thailand party, attacking right at the heart of the military’s legitimacy. And FFP has a fundamentally different vision of Thailand’s political future than the military. That is why the threat had to be dealt with swiftly and firmly. What remains to be seen is how swift and firm the retaliation to dissolving FFP will be from the disenfranchised younger generations.
*Joel Sawat Selway is associate professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University