Amidst the political uncertainties and the deeply polarized politics in Thailand, Chadchart Sittipunt, 55, the former Transport Minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government, received overwhelming support from Bangkok voters with over 1.4 million votes – the recording-breaking victory in the recent Bangkok gubernatorial election.
The election last May was the first gubernatorial election in nine years as the 2014 coup had since halted the election. The country has been ruled by the palace-backed and military proxy Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) for the past eight years.
Chadchart’s victory as the independent candidate not only brought elation to the Bangkok voters but energized citizenship when the current administration has continuously restricted political expression and freedom of speech, incarcerating vocal critics and student activists without bail.
The Bangkok gubernatorial election result also unraveled the declining support and popularity for the ruling PPRP – a significant setback for them in the next general elections, slated for 2023.
This essay examines Chadchart’s immense popularity that may be attributed to his earlier fame in the digital sphere as a meme and his ‘army” of fandom – enthusiastic fans like K-pop stars and his charismatic personality as a highly networked individual. Such factors may make him the perfect candidate for the premiership in the upcoming elections early next year.
The Net Hero
In 2013, Chadchart Sittipunt’s popularity arose when he served as the Transport Minister of the Yingluck Shinawatra government, facing political opposition when the palace, the military, and the Thai elite took to the street to oppose graft amnesty. The event culminated in the 2014 coup d’état and the rise of the military-led and elite-backed government.
Sporting a black jersey and carrying a plastic bag of food, Chadchart was once photographed while walking to the temple to make merit. The picture of this act was immediately turned into countless memes, accompanied by the phrase, “the strongest man on earth” with supernational power. He was an instant Internet Hero. More netizens engaged in the playfulness of the trend; they actively co-produced more memes in unceasing imageries, depicting Chadchart exerting supernatural power. People participated in these memes for fun, personalizing them with photos of themselves cosplaying as Chadchart in a black jersey carrying a plastic bag holding food. At the same time, as these netizens participated in adopting and proliferating more memes depicting creative ideas and laughter, they articulated that Chadchart was the politician they admired. This occurred during the height of the political tension when the Thai openly expressed hatred of corrupt politicians and mobilized for the protest to bring down the allegedly corrupt Yingluck government in which he served as the Transport Minister. His popularity has increased since then. One day in March 2019, a netizen posted Chadchart’s photo and the caption describing Chadchart, who was spotted by the subway and was asked for a selfie. Then, a line was formed at 3 p.m.; Chadchart was still there for selfies until 9 p.m. (Wisidh, 2019).
Chadchart’s Phenomenal Fandom
Fandom refers to intense fan experience—an emotional and affective connection fans have for their objects of fandom (Hinck, 2019). These objects could be movies, music, sports, celebrities, or politicians. The cases of fandom in politics were previously examined in the U.S. presidential elections. For example, the case of Barack Obama’s primary campaign illuminated the ability of grassroots enthusiasts to use social media networks (Sandvoss 2017). As a young and active leader, Obama’s “charms” galvanized huge fans (Buck-Morss, 2009). Similarly, Donald Trump rose to the presidency, utilizing his charms as a celebrity politician to garner voters. The strategy of being a celebrity instead of a politician was proved successful (Street, 2019).
With networked communication technology, netizens can launch their support online. In Thailand’s 2019 general elections, the Thai people witnessed the Future Forward Party (FFP) fandom and its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. His fans signed up as volunteers to help with the campaign. On the street, his fans waited in a long line to take selfies with him and tweeted in his support while generating hashtags, particularly the hashtag “We are grown-ups and can choose for ourselves,” the night before the election to counter the establishment’s rhetoric while voicing support for Thanathorn. The newly founded Future Forward Party came in third in the elections. The fans passionately acted and mobilized to support their political parties and candidates. The same went for Chadchart. His fans had worked as volunteers for three years when he decided to run for the Bangkok Governor. Other supporters are impassioned individuals generating social media posts and content to support Chadchart on their network. Chadchart acknowledged his popularity on the social platform, including 6 million likes on TikTok. His fans are also TikTok regulars; some are as young as eight-year-olds. “When I go to the market, an eight-year-old kid calls me, Chadchart! Chadchart! And what happened was they tell their parents to vote for me,” said Chadchart at a foreign press conference in June (FCCT Events YouTube Channel, 2022).
His devoted fans operate in the same manner as the fans who eagerly defend and protect their objects of fandom. Nine days after the gubernatorial election, the Election Commission (E.C.) had yet to certify the winner, arguing that it had to investigate the complaints that Chadchart’s statement saying that his campaign banners could be repurposed into shopping bags was equal to vote buying. With skepticism of the E.C.’s transparency, Chadchart’s “army” of fans pressured the E.C. by making over 300 phone calls to the E.C. hotline and posting on the E.C.’s social media page, urging for the official election certification (The Standard, 2022). Trending on Twitter was the hashtag What the Fuck is Wrong with E.C.? (#กกตเป็นเหี้ยอะไร) when netizens amplified their frustration and doubts about the E.C.’s postponement. Individuals generated infographics and memes explaining attacks on Chadchart and his response to those, for example, the value of the house he bought in Seattle, the morning run, or his participation in the fashion show of the people with disability.
One of the characteristics of fandom is the fans’ gratification in consuming the mediated texts of the object of fandom. People follow his daily live videos on his official Facebook page, featuring the live coverage of his activities and his visits to the flooded areas, among others. The comments expressed admiration for his hard work, humble personality, and caring messages encouraging him to take more rest. On the weekend, the page features his lifestyle, such as his early morning run, what he did on Mother’s Day, and where he eats. His videos fetched tens of thousands of views. At the same, fans exchange the media they produce when they spot Chadchart or attend the event in which he presided. The fan-generated videos populate both TikTok and Twitter. One of which depicted the event when Chadchart visited the Netizens called Chadchart, Oppa, the terms of endearment in Korean referring to the older man. They even have a YouTube show tracing Chadchart’s favorite restaurants or dishes.
The Next Step: Premiership?
With tremendous admiration for Chadchart, people expressed their wishes to see Chadchart as the next prime minister. While it might seem like wishful thinking, their trust and hope are not unwarranted. Chadchart is a charismatic politician whose work ethic and determination to improve the capital city attract both public and private sectors to join hands. He befriended the press; over 30 media agencies joined him in planting 1,000 trees in a Bangkok park (The Bangkok Post, 2022). He is sensitive to people’s plights, equality, and diversity. He’s well-educated, and his family background has strong ties with the Thai elite. Many are hopeful he may take up the opportunity to be the candidate for the premiership in the future despite his declination in his recent interview, arguing that the prime minister should be of the younger generation. He might have hinted at former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter Paetongtarn, who has had a more prominent role in Pheu Thai Party.
However, the recent history of Thai politics shows how the Thai elite and establishment have crushed the hope for democracy, and carved out an ill-fated path for Thaksin’s successors. It is clear that people in Bangkok prefer a more neutral political candidate, and their support for the Palang Pracharat Party has diminished. It is yet to see if Chadchart’s superhero imagery may transfer into the real-life politic in the country in dire need of a superhero to fight the military-led government and break free from the two-decade long political deadlock.
Associate Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton, USA
Banner Image: Bangkok, Thailand-March 31, 2022: Bangkok governor independent candidate Chadchart Sittipunt flashes his electoral ballot sheet number on an electric vehicle during a gubernatorial election campaign. Photo: SPhotograph, Shutterstock
Penchan Phoborisut—Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, Issue 33, Trendsetters, November 2022
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FCCT Events YouTube Channel. (2022, June 22). 2022.06.22 Correspondents’ dinner with the new Bangkok governor. Bangkok, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9FXsNQ5MS4, Thailand.
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Street, J. (2019). What is Donald Trump? Forms of ‘celebrity’ in celebrity politics. Political Studies Review, 3-13.
The Bangkok Post. (2022, July 11). Media workers plant trees with Chadchart. Retrieved from The Bangkok Post: https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/general/2343512/media-workers-plant-trees-with-chadchart
The Standard. (2022, May 5). Prachachon yanghae thosaiduan kokoto (People Blow Up the E.C.’s Hotline). Retrieved from https://thestandard.co/election-commission-endorses-chadchart-sittipunt/
Wisidh, W. (2019, March 30). Facebook post. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/photo?fbid=10157476948462345&set=bc.AboH3ipLWeeDEJ981GF8GfC1maj8lt6Yumy02aCz-b2VDIlCq9-qKy6eNFWVqBuZfHNEht0mrGj8e49GOMAG3-6WvZEJZhcUgjb3bPrM6aJ9uUAxndeFjBDKf0fKnUo4eG_E6O_ubnekI2nOcXsbWJZjCuK7fbMlq0wlj_DuxXuH0VVyJ18jOltjrlFg2vLFZp