The participation of young electorate is a significant factor shaping democratic development in Thailand and Malaysia. However, this participation has led to fundamentally different trajectories and outcomes in the two countries.
by Kevin Zhang and Napon Jatusripitak
Since Malaysia implemented UNDI-18 last year which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, it is apparent that young Malays are turning towards the conservative Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition. PN comprised primarily of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which champion for Islam to play a greater role in society, and the Malaysian Indigenous United Party (Bersatu), which seeks to maintain, if not enhance, the existing race-based privileges for ethnic Malays. As Malaysian voters are segregated into various streams in polling booths based on their age, the broad voting patterns for youths can be observed. Based on the available stream data, PN was the most popular coalition nationally among Malay youths, followed by Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH). The Malay youth vote played a vital role for PN (green) to expand into seats which were previously held by BN (blue) and to a smaller extent PH (red) in the recent 2022 General Election (GE2022).
In contrast, Thai youths are gravitating towards the Move Forward Party (MFP), which campaigns on a progressive platform with an anti-establishment undertone. Its core policies include welfare policies, protection of LGBTQ+ rights, military conscription reform, and amendment of the lese majeste law. The MFP is the reincarnation of the now-defunct Future Forward Party (FFP), led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a wealthy and charismatic figure with an overwhelming social media presence and popularity among the youth.
The greenhorn FFP arose on the back of overwhelming youth support in the 2019 General Election. In 2019, the FFP secured third place with 6.2 million votes, defying predictions by even the most informed experts. Although support for the FFP among Thai youths cannot be observed directly since polling in Thailand is not segregated based on age, this conclusion can be extrapolated from advance vote where FFP performed incredibly well among the outstation university students vote. After the Constitutional Court dissolved the FFP in February 2020, the party’s followers, many of whom are high school and university students, took to the streets to voice their grievances and resentment against the political system they saw as unjust. This youth-led social movement has created a powerful, progressive force that the MFP is now banking on for the upcoming general election scheduled in a weeks’ time.
To account for the divergence in the pattern of youth participation in politics in Thailand and Malaysia, it is important to address the broader historical context. In Malaysia, starting from 1971, Malaysia had implemented extensive affirmative action for the ethnic Malays (and other Bumiputra) with the goal to create a “indigenous” middle class. Decades of affirmative action have resulted in widespread expectations among Malays – including youths – that the government is responsible for uplifting their economic fortunes. By the 1990s, a Malay middle class was established and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was generally credited as the agent responsible for promoting Malay rights and interests. UMNO is the lynchpin within the BN coalition and had ruled Malaysia uninterrupted from independence till 2018.
However, the outbreak of 1MDB and other high-profile corruption scandal involving senior UMNO politicians in the past decade has severely tarnished the party’s credibility to champion for Malay interests. Unlike their parents who remained somewhat grateful for the benefits of affirmative action, young Malays – together with Malaysian youths of other races – experienced negligible wage growth in the past decade (Chart 1). In the author’s conversations with Malay youths, inadequate financial income and economic opportunities are commonly raised with the blame placed on corruption in UMNO and its tenure as government. [fieldwork data] The outbreak of COVID-19 and economic lockdown dealt a further blow. PN deftly tapped onto Malay youths’ perception of economic stagnation, with its campaign revolving almost entirely on anti-corruption and improved governance. Conversely, conservative social values such as Islam playing a greater role in societal behaviour was not the main campaign message. PN succeeded in gaining widespread traction among Malay youths with clean governance presented as the economic solution to their predicament, and the restoration of Malay privileges and pride which in recent years was squandered by UMNO. A researcher with extensive work in Malaysia’s Islamic politics commented that Malay youths overwhelmingly voted for PN in GE2022 not because of an ideological attraction to political Islam, but because Malay youths like PAS as a partywhich is perceived as clean and welfare-driven [fieldwork data, name withdrawn for confidentiality]. PN’s conservative narrative proved to be a combustible among Malay youths. The upcoming state elections in six states will indicate whether PN remains an attractive option for Malay youths.
On the other hand, the recent progressive turn among young voters in Thailand represents a successful mobilization of new voters who have no prior attachment to political parties or interest in politics. This has been achieved through the use of digital and social media platforms in pursuit of ideological ends inherited from the legacy of student-led pro-democracy movements, which have historically been successful in bringing down military governments.
In 1973, Thai university students formed alliances with farmers’ organizations and labor unions and staged a mass demonstration that toppled the military regime of Field Marshal Thanom. The demonstration brought to light not only the regime’s failure to deliver on the promise of economic prosperity and stability, but also its abuses of power, corruption, and violations of individual rights. Although the movement’s success was short-lived, interrupted only three years later by the Thammasat University massacre in 1976 which returned Thailand to authoritarian rule, the role of students as a democratizing force against military generals has become a blueprint for later generations of activists, including those who participated in the 1992 Black May popular uprising that eventually led to General Suchinda Kraprayoon stepping down.
It is through this historical lens that younger generations of Thais make sense of their experiences with the country’s political system. Many of these individuals have grown up in an era of political polarization marked by military coups, protests, and government crackdowns. Recently, their frustrations with the established way of doing things in Thailand and their aspirations for a better future have grown beyond measure, involving even younger demographics and calling for unprecedented reforms, including those concerning the military and the monarchy. In parallel, the MFP, whose supporters have shifted from merely following the party to actively participating in protests, has evolved into a movement party that aims to channel these demands into the formal political process. The party’s reliance on social media has reinforced its ability to communicate directly with its supporters, circumventing traditional electoral gatekeepers and intermediaries that typically form the local roots of other parties.
In the upcoming general election in May 2023, Thailand may once again witness a strong turnout by young voters who are no longer content to sit on the sidelines. However, if younger voters’ preferences fail to be reflected in the Thai parliament or translate into meaningful change, youth participation in politics may be marked by disillusionment and apathy.
Youths are often perceived globally to throw their weight – and even lives – for progressive values and political parties. However, the divergent trend between Malaysia’s Malay and Thai youths indicate that the political orientation of youths is highly context dependent, with progressive leanings not a given. In Malaysia, Malay youths’ dissatisfaction with stagnant economic fortunes coupled with rampant corruption in the context of affirmative action compelled them to seek a political alternative whilst maintaining status quo for social policies. Conversely, in Thailand, the entrenchment of the military, along with the historically ordained role of students as diametrical opposition to that authoritarian status quo, has led Thai youths to seek a break from conservative politics in search of greater political freedoms and democratic reforms.