When Asia Lueajan, 20, woke up this morning, he didn’t feel any different than on any other day. But within an hour of waking, he remembered that it’s the first time Thailand has had elections since the military took over the country five years ago. Knowing that he could actually vote this time around meant something to him, and he had a pretty good idea of who he wanted to vote for.
Asia, who lives with his mother and helps her run a tiny grocery store in the southern province of Surat Thani, implied he doesn’t like the current military government. When asked why he wanted to vote, he said it’s important that the country see change and progress.
“I really like Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party,” he said, referring to the more liberal opposition. “I think he really wants to shift the country for the better. It looks like he represents a new kind of politics for Thailand, and I think we [young voters] connect with that.”
Asia is just one of 7 million young Thais who finally have a voice again, after half a decade under military rule. He said that many of his friends are also voting for Future Forward Party’s leader, Thanathorn Jungrungreangkit, adding that they have done a good job making their policies and goals known to them.
In 2014, the military overthrew the last elected government in a bloodless coup, and although it was peaceful, the nation has suffered from a tumultuous history with elections. For decades, Thailand has been doused in political turmoil. Some call Thailand the world’s last military dictatorship, while others say that whatever happens today, the result will still lead to an “unworkable government.” But none of this is new to Thailand, which on average, experiences a military coup every seven years.
This year, there are 32 parties officially listed on the ballot, but the main frontrunner is the junta-backed party, Phalang Pracharat, with incumbent Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-ocha, as their candidate. Challenging his post is Pheu Thai, the main party unofficially run by ousted fugitive ex-PM, Thaksin Shinawatra; Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest political party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva; and Future Forward Party, led by the charismatic young billionaire, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
Despite Thailand’s appearance of being reasonably calm, safe, and modern, the last decade has shown that the country’s political instability has reluctantly refused to simmer. Previous elections have all ended in protests, clashes, and then again — more coups.
But young Thais are hoping this election might finally change the nation’s turbulent political past. Although optimism about Thailand’s political future is sometimes viewed as unrealistic or naive, young people are recognising that they could finally have an impact.
Last week, VICE found that Thailand’s young voters are mostly concerned with the country’s troubled education system, human rights related issues like freedom of speech, and the environment, among others. Thailand’s youth make up a significant portion of the population – and their votes are important to the political parties competing today. According to a recent survey from the King Prajadhipok’s Institute, voters from the age of 18-25 make up around 14 percent of the electorate, or close to 7 million people. The study also asserts that voter turnout is expected to be remarkably high, an assertion bolstered by enthusiasm among young Thais who are eager to cast their votes.
On the morning of election day, the hashtag #OldEoughToVoteOurselves skyrocketed to the top of Thailand’s trending topics on Twitter. The hashtag is a response to last night’s speech from Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn, where he urged Thais to vote for the “good people” so that through the election, they can rid the country of "bad influences" and generate a more peaceful society. While he didn’t mention names, it is widely understood he was referring to Prayut and his party Phalang Pracharat. But it seems that the country’s new generation of voters wasn’t excited about being told what to do, hence the multitude of ensuing tweets defending their choice to vote for whoever they see fit.
In Thailand’s south, a large number of voters are likely to vote for the ruling junta’s party, Phalang Pracharat. To them, it is about maintaining the peace. Even some young voters are happy with the country’s current leader Prayut, and many of them aren’t looking for things to change. “I like uncle Prayut,” says Pongsakon Apisitpisana, a young 23-year-old sitting quietly with his friend at a small dockside local voting station.
“So, I'm voting for Phalang Pracharat because they aren't as corrupt as Thaksin's Pheu Thai party. So far, they've kept things stable and secure, and that's really what I'm concerned with. I feel like many of the parties running this term are corrupt. They look good from the outside but they're actually quite corrupt. Uncle Prayut is always fighting corruption,” he said.
"I really don't have anything to complain about with them. I know what I'm getting with the current government. He's [Prayut] straight and upfront. And that's fine with me. I don't really need anything to change."
In the capital Bangkok, the atmosphere appeared more quiet compared to the early voting day on March 17, where people queued from 10-20 minutes. Yet despite the heat and the blasting sun, the atmosphere was lively among those who were present.
It was 19-year-old university student Nij Chonboonyadej’s first time to vote. She came with her family who was supportive of her voting for the first time, helping her understand the workings of the polling station. Asked why she was voting, she said, “I want to use my rights.”
“There are so many things that haven’t been improving at all, like education, economics or the quality of life for the people in the country, and I would like to see that changed.”
When asked what party she voted for, she didn’t hesitate to say that she voted for Future Forward party: “Their policies are very progressive and suitable for the modern world.”
22-year-old tattoo artist, Nuttakun Tongchua mirrored Nij’s satements. She also voted for the Future Forward Party.
“I came out to vote today because I want to see changes in this country. I want to see an improvement in economics, more support from the government for all lines of jobs, and to see the country using more technology to make our lives easier. I like Thanathorn’s mindset and his policies, especially the one where he wants to end the monopoly type of businesses.”
She said she has “very high hopes for this election.”
“This election is pretty much split into two sides—one that supports dictatorship and another that supports democracy. If the democracy side wins, it would prove that, as a country, we have moved forward another step,” said the first-time voter. “The bottom line is I would be cool with any [democratic] party winning, as long as it’s not Prayut.”
Yet while Future Forward is attractive to young voters, there are still some who didn’t vote for the party. Dujprattana Nakasingha, a 20-year-old university student, voted for the New Economics party – a smaller, overshadowed party widely considered a dark horse. New Economics is led by Mingkwan Sangsuwan who used to be a representative candidate under Pheu Thai party or Thaksin Shinawatra’s colleagues’ party, and a former Minister of Commerce.
“I voted today because I want to see changes in Thailand. The education system and economics are the two I would like to see improved the most,” says Dujprattana. “After the election, no matter what result we get, I want everyone to accept that, because everyone has the same right to vote.”
While it appears that Thailand’s new generation of voters are somewhat divided on where they stand politically, they agree that a return to a voting-based democracy is important to them. Whether they’re for anti-corruption policies, pushing for freedom of expression, or simply seeking change, the resounding consensus among those VICE spoke to is that elections are a positive thing.
Back at Asia Lueajan’s little local grocery store in the south, he too echoed the sentiments of his peers in the capital.
“It’s been so many years since we’ve had elections. We haven’t been able [to vote] for so long,” he said. “I think everyone’s ready to vote now. I think people really want to see some kind of change.”
Editor's Note: This article was previously under an anonymous byline and has since been updated with the author's name.