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Prayut Chan-o-cha is losing the Thai pop culture war as the election date approaches. Anti-junta groups are not convinced by the junta leader’s choices of song, food, dress, musical instruments and his social media strategy as a whole, while other political parties have already moved on to serious campaign debates. Still, he has the upper hand because of the constitution written for him.

Prayut's new look

2.6 million Thais have registered for early voting on 17 March, 4 days from today. Political parties have turned to campaigning on their policies and political positions. 12 days from now, 51 million will cast their votes in the general election and they are eager to learn what political parties will offer them.

In a public debate held by the Standard, one of the best of its kind in Thailand, Sudarat Keyuraphan of the Pheu Thai party made a pledge to launch a Smart Army policy to professionalize the military, end conscription, and divert the military budget to boosting the economy. The Bhumjaithai Party and Chartthaipattana Party focus on agricultural policies.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party, announced in the debate that he will not support Prayut to be the next Prime Minister but may join the pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party to form a government coalition if it can meet his conditions. The Future Forward Party criticized the Democrats for siding with the pro-junta party. The anti-junta position of the Thai Liberal Party’s Pol Gen Seripisut Temiyavet faced tough scrutiny as he was appointed Chief of the Royal Thai Police by the 2006 junta government of the time.  

The Standard's Debate
Source: The Standard

The political atmosphere has become more intense as the use of cultural references declined. “Fah loves daddy”, an incredibly popular phrase used by girl fans of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, referring to a famous scene in a Thai soap opera where “Fah”, an ambitious female character, has a relationship with her sugar daddy to advance her career, has faded into the background of the FFP election campaign as it fights a series of lawsuits, allegations and misinformation fabricated by the establishment.

The "fah loves daddy" scene
Source: ThaiTV3

  Thanathorn's "Fah loves daddy" phenomenon.
Source: Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit

One can also see this pattern in Sudarat Keyuraphan of the Pheu Thai party, whose beautiful daughter has attracted overwhelming support from fanboys. “Love me love my mom” became a popular sentiment among Thai voters. Chatchart Sittiphan of Pheu Thai party also performs well. But now that hype is fading as Pheu Thai has to work hard after the Thai Raksa Chart party (TRC), its ally also associated with Thaksin, was dissolved by the Constitutional Court.

Yossuda 'Jennie' Keyuraphan and her mother.
Source: Matichon

Thanathorn losing support to Sudarat's daughter.
Source: Anakot Meme

Chatchart Sittiphan eating dinosaur-shaped fried dough stick to intimidate conservative opponents.

Source: Khaosod

Other political parties also joined the pop culture war by deploying good-looking personalities on the battle field to attract voters, but nobody joined the battle as late as Prayut Chan-o-cha. And the feedback is mixed because for certain groups it is difficult to dilute a deeply ingrained anti-junta sentiment.

How dare anyone say that our dear leader is not beloved by all? Well, here we are with the proof. “Wan Mai” (or New Day), the 8th and most recent single release by Prayut, suffered 6.5k dislikes on YouTube and earned only 473 likes from his fans (as of 12 March). If you want to sympathize with him, you can listen to the song below.

According to Khaosod English, Prayut also posted a picture of his “modest meal” on Facebook to demonstrate his down-to-earth lifestyle. As of now, he has 57k reactions and 11k shares:

“Delicious stuff doesn’t always have to be expensive. #SmartChoice”

But it turned out that he faced a barrage of mockery. While some dismiss it as an obvious setup, a twitter user sent a satirical post referring to the junta’s 36 billion baht submarine deal with China:

“Good submarines don’t always have to be expensive.”

Underlying the point that it is dangerous to engage with popular culture, Facebook user Wachinan Somjai commented: 

“Other candidates show off their visions. Uncle Tu shows off his meal”.

Now let’s look at the pictures. On 9 March, Prayut’s fan page posted an album of portraits, attempting a PR strategy of presenting his new character in a positive light:

His die-hard fans undoubtedly support him, but he received a long lecture from a transgender Facebook page named Tud Review which described the presentation as “wrong personal branding”. In Thai, ‘Tud’ means transgender and in a way, they are regarded by society as gurus in popular culture:

“The problem with this contradictory presentation may come from an attempt to ‘look younger’, warm-hearted, cute, and cheerful, and erase his previous aggressive image. It is an attempt to change his identity from the serious look of a “high-ranking elderly military officer” to that of a young man who understands teenagers in order to captivate the millennials, the constituency that he hardly gets any support from. This is so that he can focus on teenagers who would otherwise support new parties or parties that look professional and modern.

This warm-hearted side of Uncle Tu may actually look cute and we rarely see it, but it does not feel right or feel real. He is not himself, because we are so familiar with our previous experiences from the media that stay in our vision. This makes it difficult to fix or adjust his image in this sudden way or for us to accept it.

Wanting and trying to be someone else is not always a success!”

Nevertheless, he persisted. On 12 March, several sources reported that Prayut drank a coffee, picked up a guitar, and said that “sometimes I have an artistic mood, sometimes I get angry. This is the feeling of a soldier. This is what’s inside me.” So far so good, but Thai netizens spotted that the guitar has no strings. They also encouraged him to work in music industry instead of pursuing political career.

Even though he is losing his struggle with popular culture, he may still be winning the game due to the 2017 Constitution that was written to serve him. Backed by the 250 non-elected senators, Prayut Chan-o-cha will need to secure only 126 votes from the House of Representatives to earn a majority of the whole parliament (376 out of 750) and become Prime Minister.

On 9 March, Khaosod English reported that Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister, presided over the committee which has selected a group of 400 shortlisted candidates for the junta to appoint as unelected senators. Only 194 of the 400 candidates of the shortlist will be selected. Other 50 senators will be chosen directly by the junta, while the rest of the seats go to commanders of the armed forces.

On 13 March, Prawit told the press that "we appoint them, so we must be able to control them." According to the 2017 constitution, the senates who serve 5-year terms can vote on who will be the prime minister during the first 5 years of its enforcement. The members of representatives and the prime minister will serve 4-year team when they have won the election this time. This means that they are also able to vote on the prime minister next term in 2023.  

Prayut also has back-up from other non-elected independent bodies. Having dissolved the TRC party with final decision from the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission of Thailand, appointed by the NCPO, decided not to pursue pro-Prayut Phalang Pracharat Party for using the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s budget to reserve tables, 2 million baht each, in its fund-raising dinner. A complaint was also made against Phalang Pracharat for offering government welfare cards to citizens who promised to vote for the party, but one can anticipate that ECT will not take up that case.

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