KHON KAEN, Thailand -- The Thai general election on March 24 will be the first since the widespread use of social media in the country and could yield clues to how these new ways of information dissemination affect the fortunes of political parties.
One of the parties that has seized on social media to promote itself is the Future Forward Party, led by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a young billionaire who made his money in manufacturing auto parts. Hashtags related to him and his party dominated Thai Twittersphere after the political neophyte performed impressively during a recent public debate on party policies, pitting himself against pro-junta groups.
"Young voters get all their political information through smartphones, and they are attracted to Thanathorn's party because they can identify with its views that challenge the established system," Supinya Klangnarong, a former member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, the county's independent regulator, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
The easy access to social media platforms such as Line, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has silenced the airwaves. Thailand's garrulous community radio stations were once a key information channel for political parties and played a crucial role during the last, successful general elections in 2011. Digital media surveys by international and local groups estimate that Thailand has 51 million social media users, of whom 41 million use Line and 49 million Facebook.
It was because of the reach of social media that a small party such as Future Forward is able to gain momentum and rattle the pro-junta Palang Pracharath party, which is backing Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for another term.
The regime's allies have hit back on social media, targeting Future Forward and parties affiliated with former Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra who pose a genuine threat to the military.
Such campaigns on social media reach beyond the urban youth.
Cherdchai Tantisiri, a heart surgeon and former parliamentarian allied with the Thaksin camps, said that the pro-democracy group has been mapping out the reach of smartphones in Khon Kaen, one of the largest provinces in the northeast, and adjoining five provinces. "I was in a village last week and first asked people at a meeting who has smartphones, and all raised their hands," said Cherdchai recently from his Khon Kaen office.
"We have set up Line groups and networks in 2,500 villages across Khon Kaen," he added. "This has become an important network to stay in touch with our base and convey political information."
Cherdchai is a regional leader of a political party aligned with Thaksin, who absconded after he was convicted of corruption. Despite his troubles with the law, Thaksin remains a patriarch of the country's most influential political camp, which has won all elections since 2001. He was overthrown in a 2006 coup and is reviled by the military and the ultraconservative political establishment.
Seasoned observers said that the pro-democracy camps are tightening their grip in the northeastern provinces through the spread of new technological platforms.
"Social media has been playing a pivotal role to expand the political space and for people to get political information," said Buapun Promphakping, a social scientist at Khon Kaen University. "Nearly 30% of people in the villages in Isaan (as the northeast is known) are connected to Line or other kinds of social media."
Thailand has a 130% mobile phone penetration rate for a population of nearly 69 million. Over 90% of internet users go online via smartphones, according to the National Statistics Office of Thailand.
Thai conglomerates like Charoen Pokphand Group, a business ally of the regime, have played their part in this spread. True Corp., a subsidiary of CP Group and Thailand's largest telecom provider, has teams in villages offering free smartphones and phone lines every month.
Analysts say that the while Line attracts voters of all ages, Facebook is more popular with older voters, while Twitter and Instagram are popular with young, first-time voters, estimated to number about six million out of the over 50 million registered voters.
Back in Khon Kaen, the regional leader of Palang Pracharath is playing down the significance of social media in swaying voter sentiment. "We are not using social media, but going to meet people in person," Ekkarat Changlao said in his party's provincial headquarters. "Under the new election rules, parties cannot do much through smartphones."
The local real estate tycoon has been campaigning over the past seven months on a simple message: "Voting for us is a vote for Prime Minister Prayuth to continue as the prime minister." His face-to-face campaigns, he reckoned, will bear rewards at the polls.