Do political leaders
matter? The case of
young people
and Thai politics
¿Importan los líderes
políticos? El caso de
los jóvenes y la política
Tailandesa
Waraporn Chatratichart
University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce
waraporn_cha@utcc.ac.th
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Do political leaders
matter? The case of
young people
and Thai politics
¿Importan los líderes
políticos? El caso de
los jóvenes y la política
Tailandesa
The inuence of the image and personality of political actors have long been dis-
cussed in political and communication studies. Although an understanding of the
impact is inconclusive, it is widely believed that the image or personality of leaders
inuences voters’ electoral choices and, therefore, a political actor’s personality is im-
portant. Several critics, however, contend that the focus on the party leader encoura-
ge voters to engage with the image rather than the substance of politics. This paper
argues that the perceived image of a party leader can inuence young peoples elec-
toral choices, although they may use the image in dierent ways. As argued by the
Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo 1981, 1986), among those with
lower levels of political knowledge, interest and/or involvement, a leader’s perceived
image or personality may serve as a shortcut when making their electoral choices.
For others, a degree of emotional attachment to a leader may stimulate their con-
sideration of that leader’s policies, leading to central route processing. Image can
therefore play either a direct or indirect role in young peoples voting choices.
La inuencia de la imagen y personalidad de los actores políticos ha sido amplia-
mente debatida en estudios políticos y de comunicación. Aunque un entendi-
miento de su impacto no es concluyente, se cree que en general la imagen o la
personalidad de los líderes inuye en la elección de los votantes y, por lo tanto, la
personalidad de un actor político es importante. Varios críticos sin embargo se opo-
nen defendiendo que al centrarse en el líder del partido se fomenta que los votantes
se comprometan con la imagen en lugar de con la esencia del mensaje político.
Este artículo argumenta que la imagen que se percibe del líder de un partido puede
inuenciar la elección por parte de los jóvenes, aunque éstos pueden usar la imagen
de maneras distintas. Tal y como se deende en el Elaboration Likelihood Model
(ELM, Petty y Cacioppo, 1981, 1986), entre aquellos con niveles más bajos de cono-
cimiento de la política, intes y/o participación, la imagen o la personalidad que se
percibe de un líder puede servir como atajo cuando se elige a quién votar. Para otros,
un cierto grado de cariño o cercanía por un líder puede estimular su consideración
de las políticas de dicho líder, llevando a una vía de procesamiento central. La ima-
gen puede por lo tanto jugar un papel directo o indirecto en la elección por parte
de losvenes.
ABSTRACT
RESUMEN
Clasicación JEL:
M37, M38
Palabras clave:
Imagen, liderazgo
político, comporta-
miento de voto
JEL Classication:
M37, M38
Key words:
Image, political
leadeship, Voting
Behaviour
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Introduction: Images in Politics
The role of image in politics has long been a sub-
ject for discussion in political communication
studies. The focus on image in election cam-
paigns has been intensified due to changes in
political, social, and technological spheres, as well
as the competition for audiences in the world of
consumerism. Further, the concept of marketing
being appropriated from the business world has
been applied to the world of politics in order to
help political parties influence the mass electorate
and retain the partys position in the market
where there is more than one ‘brand’.
The application of political marketing under
the MOP (market-oriented) approach (Lilleker
and Lees-Marshment 2005) allows political par-
ties to utilise market intelligence to collect vo-
tersneeds, desires, and priorities, and later to
help design political products, including the
image of a party leader, to meet voters’ demands.
One good example of re-designing a leader’s
image to attract voters is the case of Jorg Haider
of Austria’s FPO (Lederer et al. 2005). Haider
projected an image of an ‘anti politician’ in order
to attract voters who had a negative perception
of politics and politicians. The rebranding was
successful as, in 1986, 54 percent of FPO voters
cast their ballots because of Haiders image
(ibid).
In the Thai political context, it can be said
that the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party of Thaksin
Shinawatra
1
was the first Thai political party to
systematically adopt the MOP approach. Its lea-
der, Thaksin Shinawatra, emerged after the 1997
financial crisis, and by that time the Thais were
apathetic to politics because of the unchanging
choice of candidates for the premiership (Bowor-
1 Thailand’s 23rd Prime Minister and was ousted by the coup in
September 2006
nwathana 2000). With help from market intelli-
gence and opposition research, the TRT positio-
ned itself as the party that ‘Acts New, Thinks
New’ and positioned Thaksin Shinawatra as “a
successful and wealthy businessman who wan-
ted to help his country” (Nantavaropas 2006, p.
79). Furthermore, he projected himself as a ‘non
(or anti) politician’ (ibid) making him the outs-
tanding option in the 2001 general election and
leading to a landslide victory.
After its defeat in the 2001 and 2005 general
elections, the Democrat party (Phak Prachatipat)
moved towards the MOP approach, as can be
seen from the founding of the Samatcha Pracha-
chon Prachatipat (Peoples Assembly). According
to its official website, the aim of the assembly
was to gather Thai people from all walks of life,
nationwide, to explore the country’s problems
and propose solutions for those problems (The
Democrat Party 2005). However, the MOP
approach of the Democrat Party is different from
the TRT’s. The Assembly encourages public par-
ticipation which reflects the external image of
the Democrat Party as a mass bureaucratic party.
Though there are no empirical studies or evi-
dence to show whether, or how, the Democrat
party used market intelligence to re-design its
new leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva
2
, attempts to re-in-
troduce the leader were made. The party laun-
ched commercial spots in the 2006 general elec-
tion
3
with the aim of changing its leader’s image
to increase his appeal to voters nationwide
(Raksaseri and Kurz 2006).
The above examples illustrate that, with the
help of market intelligence, a party leader can be
designed, re-designed, and marketed to attract
2 The current Thailand’s Prime Minister
3 However, the campaign was never nished as the October 2006
election was cancelled due to the coup in September
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Do Political Leaders Matter? The Case of Young People and Thai Politics (Págs. 8 a 27 )
voters. Under the MOP approach, the role of
image, especially of the party leader, is highlighted
and increasingly becomes important to the elec-
tion campaign and, ultimately, to success in the
election.
Literature Review: Images, Voting
Behaviour and its Impact
Image is a major factor of the decision-making
process when (1) information is complex, con-
flicting and/or incomplete, and (2) people have
a low degree of involvement and are unable to
process an extensive amount of information
(Poiesz 1988 cited Van Reil 1995). In politics, it
is generally believed that the electorate should
scrutinise party platforms or policies when
making electoral choices. Arguably, there are some
voters who are likely to make decisions on the
basis of their impressions, feelings or emotions
by using cues provided by parties to make their
electoral choice. As confirmed by Campbell
(1983), voters who lack information or knowled-
ge, especially the less politically interested, are
likely to make voting decisions from an as-
sessment of the candidate’s qualities, or percei-
ved qualities.
Iyengar and McGuire (1993) argue citizens
are cognitive misers who seek to minimise the
time and effort needed to learn about political
issues. They therefore prefer to take shortcuts by
judging political actors’ traits instead of scrutini-
sing political information. McAllister (1996)
agrees, contending that, generally, voters prefer
to associate political power and authority with a
visible and identifiable person, rather than an
abstract institution or political idea. This is be-
cause, as humans, we find it easier to develop a
“personal narrative, and then assess political
character from personal character” than to learn
about complex issues or institutions (Popkin
1991, p. 78).
Image is concerned with political style, or
how a political actor speaks and behaves. This
political style has a crucial influence on voters’
perceptions and impressions, and so the
candidate’s electability. In other words, style
constructs, or forms, an image, and image affects
the vote. This became central to the political
process after the inception and expansion of ac-
cess to television by mass audiences. Further-
more, in modern British politics, image plays a
crucial role in helping to distinguish a party or
political actor, and determining credibility, since
the policies of the major political parties have
become similar (Bruce 1992). In particular, in
the television era, the 30-second advertisement
helps audiences to form attitudes towards politi-
cal actors in a short period of time, and the deli-
very and overall impression left with the viewers
are often more important than the message
(Newman 1999). Image is likely to be used as a
basis of choice if the voter’s consideration is limited
to certain factors, such as the level of political
interest and the inability to differentiate any
other factors, for example policy, or performance
(Campbell 1983, King 2005b), and weak emo-
tional ties with the parties (King 2005b).
In the Thai political context, where the cam-
paign practice is moving towards presidentiali-
sation, candidates’ characters and personality
become increasingly important factors in cam-
paigns. According to Worapitayut (interview,
December 29, 2005), image is a key factor among
young Thais and those less-involved in politics.
Since policies proposed by a political party or a
candidate are abstract, image becomes the factor
which enables voters to remember or recognise
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the candidate, which will influence them when
they cast their ballots (Sothanasathien 2005).
The influence of image is evident in several
elections, for example, the election of the gover-
nor of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administra-
tive
4
in 2000 (Sothanasathien 2005), or the lands-
lide triumph of the TRT in 2001. The move of
the Democrat party in the October 2006 election
campaign also gave the impression that its party
leader was important. The party prioritised the
leader in its communication campaigns, possi-
bly in order to drive voters to focus upon the
leader rather than the policies. This is further
evidence of the importance of the party leader
(and his or her image) in the political communi-
cation context in Thailand.
Despite the evidence, the image issue remains
tentative, and no definite consensus exists as to
its impact. Nonetheless, it is widely believed that
image and personality increasingly plays a signi-
ficant role in electoral choices (Kelly Jr. and
Mirer 1974, Schulman and Pomper 1975,
Harwig et al. 1980, Campbell 1983, Bean and
Kelly 1988, Bulter and Stokes 1974, Graetz and
McAllister 1987, Mughan 1978 cited Bean and
Mughan 1989). Furthermore, Thompson (2000)
clearly maintains that politics has evolved from
ideological politicswith class-based parties, to the
‘politics of trust’. Therefore, people are looking
for credibility and trustworthiness in actual or
aspiring leaders, and examine their characters as
a means of assessing their suitability, or otherwise,
for office.
Several studies claim that the importance of
image is overstated, citing as evidence John
Major’s triumph over Neil Kinnock in the UK in
4 The election is the presidential system as the Bangkok residents
can directly choose their governor. The campaigns therefore are presi-
dentialisation in style
1992 (McNair 2003). Moreover, Converse and
Dupeux (1958), Markus and Converse (1979),
Rosenberg et al. (1986), or Schaffner et al. (1981)
cannot provide a clear-cut conclusion as to the
influence of candidates’ personal qualities and/or
image on voting preferences. Equally, the image,
personality and personal characteristics of party
leaders are downplayed by King (2005c). Perso-
nality may be influential at an individual level,
but the impact is not strong enough to determine
the outcome of elections in the six of the coun-
tries studied. However, there were a few elections
where personalities did matter. Granted, these
were unusual situations, but nevertheless, King
accepts that personality does “count for some-
thing” (2005a, p. 216). Furthermore, King (ibid)
speculates that the leaders personality gains im-
portance when party ties weaken. Since voters
are not able to differentiate other factors, such as
policy, or issues of political parties, and are likely
to base voting decisions on image or personality
of the leader. However, studies in Kings book do
not go further to prove this contention.
How are Choices Made?: Elabora-
tion Likelihood Model
Campbell (1983) argues that the level of political
interest is related to image voting. He contends
that the less well-informed, or less politically in-
terested, voters are likely to have little or no
knowledge of less easily understood aspects of
the candidates, such as issue preferences. They
may not adequately understand issues or ideolo-
gical information, due to minimal information.
Thus, they are likely to judge the candidate on
his or her personal qualities. On the other hand,
with knowledge of issues and ideology, well-in-
formed voters are less likely to rely upon image
evaluation.
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The above contention can be explained by
the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) (Petty
and Cacioppo 1981, 1986), a social psychologi-
cal theory widely used in the marketing context.
Newman and Perloff (2004) suggest that the
ELM can be a bridge to understanding and in-
vestigating the electorate and their decision ma-
king process. In addition, the ELM can enhance
researchers’ understanding of attitude change in
the political environment bombarded with poli-
tical marketing. Petty and Cacioppo (ibid) pos-
tulate that, in persuasive communication, attitu-
des can be changed via two distinct processes,
namely the central and peripheral routes. Accor-
ding to Petty and Cacioppo (ibid) and Petty and
Wegener (1999), attitude changes by means of
central route processing result from thoughtful
and careful consideration of the merits of infor-
mation presented in the communication. Indivi-
duals will evaluate and think critically about the
arguments contained within the message, and
generate his or her own thoughts in response to
the argument (ibid).
In contrast, persuasion via the peripheral
route is less thoughtful. Petty and Cacioppo
(1981, 1986) explain that, when a receiver had
either low motivated/ability or is unmotivated/
unable to carefully consider the message, he or
she tends to rely on simple cues in the commu-
nication, without scrutinising the merits of the
issue-relevant information presented. Such cues
can be, for example, the environment, the credi-
bility of the source, the attractiveness of the
source, or the mood of the receivers. However,
once an individual has made a decision, he or she
may become motivated to think about his or her
choice. He or she will go through the cognition
process, subsequently producing a more perma-
nent change of attitude. The authors further con-
tend that this could ultimately lead to the adop-
tion of attitudes which are persistent, resistant,
and predictive of future behaviour.
The situations in which simple cues become
more powerful include those when the message
has a low level of personal relevance or the recei-
ver has low prior knowledge of the issues, lacks
motivation and the ability to process the argu-
ment, is distracted from processing the issue-re-
levant argument, has a low need for cognition, is
forced to process the argument, and/or the mes-
sage is either overly vague or complex (Petty and
Cacioppo 1986).
Numerous studies demonstrate that a low in-
volvement individual tends to rely on peripheral
cues, heuristics, simple messages, gut feelings,
celebrity endorsement, mere exposure to the can-
didates, nonverbal communication, or branded
party labels (Kam 2005, Newman and Perloff
2004, Perloff 1984, Petty and Wegener 1999,
Wang Erber et al. 1995, Zaller 1992).
As posited by Clarke et al. (2004), in modern
politics, voters lack detailed information about
parties’ policies. According to the economic
theories of democracy, it would be costly for
them to seek out and process that information.
Thus, voters may rely upon the leaders image, the
most important heuristic device, as a cognitive
shortcut to their electoral choices.
In addition, emotions can play an important
role in the ELM. Emotion can stimulate thinking
activities among the electorate. The theory of
Affective Intelligence (Marcus 2002, Marcus et al.
2000) argues that emotion and reason interact
to produce a thoughtful and attentive electorate.
A similar contention is suggested by Richards
(2004, 2007), who argues that, currently, politi-
cal campaigns are necessary to establish a political
leaders trustworthiness among the electorate,
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and create the impression of the political actor as
a person. Emotions created by those political
campaigns (or the political actor’s performance)
can help to connect the electorate to the political
actors and the policies they represent. Once the
electorate establishes feelings or an emotional
connection with the political actor, they may
carefully consider the policies proposed by him
or her. Therefore, according to the Elaboration
Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo 1981,
1986), the electorate may engage in a central
route of persuasion.
Moreover, affective states or feelings can in-
fluence the variables in the model. Certainly,
feelings serve as a simple heuristic cue when ela-
boration likelihood is low. Positive attitudes
result from ‘pleasant affect’; whereas, ‘unpleasant
affect’ will lead to negative attitudes. However, in
a high elaboration likelihood condition, feelings
serve as persuasive arguments, which affect the
individuals analysis or assessment of the merits
of the argument. Therefore, it can be said that
feelings may influence the judgement of any
messages, including the images and personali-
ties of a candidate or a party leader, and the for-
mation of impressions of a candidate or a leader.
As a result, image voting can be regarded as an
emotional act, but this does not mean that it is
irrational.
Research Methodology
The findings discussed in this paper are based
on doctoral research amongst young people in
Thailand (Chatratichart, 2010).The project adop-
ted a mixed methods strategy, combining quali-
tative and quantitative methods, for data collec-
tion and analysis. Data collection started with an
online survey, executed between December
2005 and February 2006, during the regime of
Thaksin Shinawatra, with young people aged
16-20. It generated 113 valid cases for analysis.
A self-completion questionnaire was later carried
out between December 2006 and January 2007,
after the military coup in September 2006 and
the downfall of Thaksin Shinawatra. The 7-page
questionnaire, with 31 questions, was distribu-
ted to 1,080 young people via designated educa-
tional institutions across Bangkok. In total, 1,040
questionnaires were returned, but only 797 sets
were valid. The project was followed by 8 focus
groups, executed between February and March
2007. Forty-six participants from diverse back-
grounds in terms of age, level and type of educa-
tion, and zone of residence joined the discussions.
Data from the questionnaires and online sur-
veys, together with focus group discussions,
were triangulated in the analysis and discussion
stages in order to obtain in-depth understanding
of young people and their political behaviour.
However, it must be noted that the data was
collected during the fluid political situation after
the coup; therefore, the ndings of this study are
temporal and may make sense only within spe-
cific timeframes. Nonetheless, the results offer
insights into the political psychology of young
Thai voters.
Findings and Discussions:
• Thai Young People and their Political
Behaviour
The study revealed that Generation Y Thai youth
had a positive attitude towards democracy and
the practice of voting. Although they had a mo-
derate level of interest in politics, they were not
politically active; more than half of them had
either never engaged in a politically related acti-
vity or had done so only once. Furthermore, al-
most half of the respondents were less knowled-
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geable about politics and did not follow political
news. Moreover, young people did not generally
align themselves with any particular political
party and, thus, they were usually classed as being
late deciders or floating voters. These findings
support the results of a number of studies of
young Thai people (Election Commission of
Thailand 2005, Thamrongthanyawong 1998,
Boonbongkarn and Phongphaew 1984). Unlike
several western democracies (for example Bal-
lington 2002, Putnam 2000), young Thai people
intended to exercise their right to vote, although
some were sceptical about voting and the level of
enforcement to vote was relatively weak. Because
of the low degree of political knowledge and in-
terest of young people, their electoral choices
were less likely to be sophisticated.
Regarding reasons for voting, party leader
and policies shared a relatively significant role in
young peoples voting choices, with 44.4% and
38.8% respectively. Nonetheless, more people
voted for the party with the best leader, which
supports several earlier studies (for example
Rattanadilok Na Phuket and associates 2002 cited
Chantornvong 2002, Boonbongkarn and Phong-
phaew 1976). The party leader was more impor-
tant among young people with low and mod-
erate levels of political interest and knowledge.
These findings conform to those of the ELM
(Petty and Cacioppo 1981, 1986) suggesting that
individuals with low or no motivation or ability
to consider the message tend to rely on simple
cues in the persuasion context. Thai teenagers
prefer to make voter choices based on leaders
rather than policies because they believe policies
can be later developed or improved. However, a
weak leader cannot perform well or implement
policies.
The significance of the role of the party lea-
der, or an individual candidate, in Thai politics
can be explained in several ways. Personalisation
has been rooted in the Thai political arena for a
long period of time. Being ruled by an absolute
monarchy or military prime ministers in recent
decades has shaped the perceptions of Thai
people in general, so that they look for, or prefer,
a strong or authoritarian leader who is decisive
and able to get things done. Moreover, a political
party can be fragmented and ideologically weak,
so a party leader can be pivotal and play a central
role in the election campaign. This, in turn, can
influence young people’s voting choices.
Moreover, in the past, policies or manifestos
announced during campaigns were less likely to
be implemented as a whole package due to coa-
lition governments. Therefore, Thais view poli-
cies as abstract matters, but a person is more
substantial. This perception is embedded among
Thai people, and it strengthens the vital role of
the party leader, or individual candidate, in the
voting decision. Nonetheless, the findings reveal
that the difference between leader and policy is
only 5.6 per cent. This phenomenon can be the
result of the TRT’s practices which heavily pro-
moted its manifestos in the election campaigns,
and put them into effect, which is an unprece-
dented occurrence in Thai politics.
The research, however, illustrates a similar
numbers of vocational students voting for a par-
ty with the best leader and for the best policies
(43.5% and 42.6% respectively). The study found
that, generally, vocational students tended to
have a low degree of political knowledge, inter-
est and engagement. According to the ELM
(ibid), peripheral cues should play a dominant
role in their decision making process. However,
this is a special circumstance because of the
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strong support for the TRT party among vocatio-
nal students. They preferred the TRT because of
its ex-leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, and its policies
and projects which helped less economically ad-
vantaged people like themselves and their fami-
lies. Therefore, they considered the party’s poli-
cies before casting their votes. However, with
their low degree of political knowledge and in-
terest, Chatratichart (2010) questions whether
they will scrutinise all parties’ manifestos before
they make a decision. Also, it is doubtful if they
will vote for other parties if they offer the same
policies as the TRT. It is less likely that they will
do so, because they have a strong attachment to
the TRT because of either its ex-leader or its po-
licies. Chatratichart (2010) argues that the emo-
tional attachment to Thaksin Shinawatra en-
courages them to consider or think about the
TRT’s policies, since it is contended by Marcus
(op. cit) and Richards (op. cit.) that emotion can
lead to greater cognitive reasoning.
Alternatively, the practice of postmodern elec-
tion campaigns makes the electorate less able to
differentiate a party from its leader (Mair et al.
2004). For the TRT in particular, policies, party
brand and leader are interrelated. The brand of
leader and party, and populist policies, were in-
tegrated by the intensive practice of political
marketing through well-planned and well-exe-
cuted campaigns. It is, therefore, difficult for
young voters, especially those with a low level of
political knowledge and interest, to distinguish
the effect of each factor on their vote. They may
say that they are voting for the party with the
best policies, when, in fact, their voting decision
is the combined effect of party and leader brands,
and policies.
• ELM and Thai Young People
According to the ELM, motivation and ability to
evaluate arguments are key determinants in un-
derstanding how attitudes are formed and chan-
ged. It is the so called likelihood of elaboration
which determines whether a person will engage
in central or peripheral processing. The motiva-
tion dimension for this research was operationa-
lised from engagement in politically related acti-
vities. The ability dimension was based upon the
level of an individual’s political knowledge.
However, as emphasised by Petty and Wegener
(1999) in their later work, the ELM should be
understood as a continuum rather than two dis-
tinct points, and the respondents of the self-
completion questionnaire survey (N = 797)
could be classified into four groups as shown in
Figure 1.
The educational divide is clearly demonstra-
ted: vocational college students were less
knowledgeable about politics than secondary
school and university students. These findings
are similar to those in Dean’s study (2006), sug-
gesting that a lower levels of education limit the
level of ability and/or the motivation to process
complex messages.
In line with the ELM, young people with a
high level of motivation and ability (Group 1)
were likely to apply cognitive thinking, since
they considered the parties’ policies when they
made their electoral choices. Nonetheless, a sig-
nificant number of young people who had a
high level of ability and motivation considered a
party leader when they voted. Although these
people were able to scrutinise political messages,
they avoided complex thought processes, which
suggests that voting behaviour is not a straight-
forward matter. With time constraints in the mo-
dern world, more and more of the electorate are
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choices. It is because the majority of this group
are TRT loyalists, particularly vocational stu-
dents, and they considered policies only because
they were the TRT’s policies. Their strong attach-
ment to the ex-party leader (Thaksin Shi-
nawatra), explains their voting decision in two
ways. For some, the emotional attachment can
be a simple cue guiding their electoral choice.
They regarded Thaksin Shinawatra as being the
best leader, and their trust in him simply shifted
to trust in the TRT and its policies. However, for
others, the emotional connection to a party lea-
der can encourage the voters to thoroughly con-
sider his policies, as contended by several acade-
mics (Marcus 2002, Marcus et al. 2000, Richards
2004, 2007). Arguably, the preference for Thak-
sin Shinawatra and his ability, prompted these
young people to engage in a more central route
of processing. Therefore, the ELM should not be
seen as two distinct thought processes, the cen-
tral and peripheral routes. Arguably, heuristic
cues, such as the leader’s image, can bring about
cognitive processing among less able and moti-
vated voters during a campaign.
cognitive misers (Iyengar and McGuire 1993),
who try to minimise time and effort spent resear-
ching political information. An evaluation of a
party leader, for example a successful businessman,
can be seen as a metaphor for the future success
of a PM, can play a pivotal role in young peoples
electoral decisions, regardless of their levels of
political knowledge or interest.
The leader played a significant role in the vo-
ting decisions of young people with a low level
of political knowledge and interest (Group 2
4), which conforms to the findings of the ELM
(ibid) that, when a person is less motivated or
unmotivated to critically consider the message,
he or she tends to look for, or rely on, simple
cues in the persuasion context. The findings
support several studies (Kam 2005, Newman
and Perloff 2004, Wang Erber et al. 1995) stating
the importance of cues or shortcuts in an
individuals decision making process.
It is interesting to note that a large number of
young people with a low level of both cognitive
ability and motivation (Group 4) considered a
party’s manifesto when making their electoral
High Motivation
G-2 (n=79) G-1 (n=199)
Vocational (44.3%) Secondary (48.7%) / Uni (37.2%)
Leader (48.1%) Policy (41.7%) & Leader (39.7%)
Low Ability
High Ability
G-4 (n=258) G-3 (n=261)
Vocational (42.2%) Secondary (48.7%) & Uni (34.1%)
Leader (42.8%) & Policy (41.2%) Leader (48.4%)
Low Motivation
Figure 1: Prole of Young People according to the ELM (Adapted from Chatratichart 2010)
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• Inuence of Party Leaders on Electoral
Choices
The influence of the leader on Thai young
peoples electoral choices, no matter how politi-
cally aware young people are, is evident from
Chatratichart’s (2010) study as briefly described
in the following paragraphs.
1. Evaluations of the party leader: a predic-
tor of voting
The research illustrates that a positive percep-
tion of party leaders guides voting intention.
TRT voters demonstrated a positive perception
of Thaksin Shinawatra, whereas Democrat vo-
ters had a positive view of Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Thus, the positive qualities of each leader serve
as a peripheral cue in young peoples decision-
making process. Petty and Cacioppo (1986, p.
18) maintain that peripheral cues refer to “sti-
muli in the persuasion context that can affect
attitudes without necessitating processing of the
message arguments.” These positive affective
cues towards each leader result in a positive atti-
tude being formed towards each party, and lead
to positive behaviour, which, in this case, means
voting, or having an intention to vote, for the
relevant party.
On the other hand, negative evaluations of a
party leader can also influence young people’s
intentions to vote. Obviously, Democrat voters
perceived Thaksin Shinawatra as being disho-
nest, and believe that he could not be trusted to
run the country. Therefore, they did not intend
to vote for the TRT, and did not consider Thak-
sin Shinawatra to be the most suitable person to
be PM. On the other hand, TRT voters har-
boured negative perceptions of Abhisit Vejjajiva,
especially in terms of the qualities of decisive-
ness and trustworthiness. TRT voters regarded
decisiveness as being the most important trait of
their ideal leader. Since Abhisit Vejjajiva was in-
decisive, they would not vote for the Democrat
party, nor did they think that he was the best
choice for PM. These findings are similar to those
found by Evans and Anderson (2005) in the
2005 British election: Conservative voters did
not like Blair or Kennedy, whereas Labour voters
did not like Howard or Kennedy.
Nevertheless, Chatratichart (2010) points out
that postmodern campaigns introduce an inter-
relationship between the party leader, the party
brand and the manifesto, and the emphasis on
the party leader attaches the leader brand to the
party brand in the minds of voters. As asserted
by Mair et al. (2004), a party becomes its leader.
Therefore, a voting decision may be the combi-
ned effect of the leader and party brand. In lea-
der-centred campaigns, it is sometimes difficult
for voters to distinguish the party from its leader,
and the positive, or negative, feelings towards
the leader are the positive, or negative, feelings
towards his party. Positive or negative attitudes
towards either the leader, or the party, can in-
fluence the voting intentions of young voters.
Chatratichart (2010) concludes that, at this sta-
ge, it is not possible to specify the direction of
the relationship, although the findings suggest
that an appraisal of the party leader, which can
partially be influenced by the party and policy
appraisals, is associated with the intention to
vote.
2. Perceived negative images: the cost to the
partys potential votes
It is found that young people who had a negative
perception of the party leaders personal qualities
would not vote for the party, even if that leader
would perform well in office. It can be said,
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Do Political Leaders Matter? The Case of Young People and Thai Politics (Págs. 8 a 27 )
therefore, that personal qualities have a strong
influence upon voting intentions, since they sug-
gest how that person will behave in office. For
example, of those who view Thaksin Shinawatra
as being the best candidate for PM, 50 per cent
from the pilot study and 23.8 per cent from
main study said that they would either not vote
for the TRT, or would make a decision later.
They all believed that Thaksin Shinawatra was
dishonest, and they were, therefore, uncertain
whether or not they could trust him to run the
country again. Although they recognised that he
was a competent PM, they did not think he was
fit for the job because of his personal weaknesses.
The influence of the leaders perceived negative
personal qualities is also apparent in the voting
intentions of the Democrat party. About 46.4
per cent of the respondents who believed that
Abhisit Vejjajiva would be the best PM would
not vote Democrat. They were unsure if he was
intelligent, responsive, got things done, and
stuck to his principles. They would therefore
either vote for another party or made a decision
later. Therefore, perceived negative qualities of
party leaders potentially result in a loss of votes
for the party.
Another clear example of the impact of nega-
tive traits on peoples voting intention is the case
of Banharn Silpa-archa and his Chart Thai party.
Though some young people perceived that Ban-
harn was the most suitable candidate for the pre-
miership, they would not vote for his party. The
reason is that they questioned his honesty, and
were unsure if he was someone who could be
trusted to run the country. Uncertainty about
these two qualities contributed to a mistrust of
Banharn and cost Chart Thai votes.
Arguably, the influence of perceived negative
personal qualities may not be strongly signifi-
cant, although the findings do support
Thompson’s (2000) concept of ‘politics of trust’.
He contends that the electorate seek credibility
and trustworthiness in its political leaders, and
look to their characters as a means of assessing
their suitability for office, or lack of it. Young
Thai people do not fully trust any of the three
leaders because of perceived negative personal
traits. Consequently, they are unlikely to vote for
their respective parties. It is, therefore, confir-
med that perceived negative traits are equally
important as perceived positive traits.
3. Personal qualities versus Policies
The importance of a party leader and his personal
qualities is confirmed in the group discus-
sions. According to respondents, the leader was
more important than the party’s policies when
they were considering their voting choices. They
expressed a unanimous opinion that policies
could be developed or improved, but a weak
leader would not perform well, or had the capa-
bility to implement the policies proposed. Fur-
thermore, the qualities of a leader could not be
easily developed or improved within the short pe-
riod of time he or she was in office.
This emphasis on a competent leader implies
the significance of the influence of a leader on
young people’s electoral choices. They view the
personal qualities of a leader as being a tangible
element from which they can make an evalua-
tion, and thus, the evaluation of a candidate can
be regarded as an instrument for voters to assess
how candidates would behave in office, or deal
with overall governmental affairs (Miller et al.
1986). For some Thai voters, policies are only
‘words’. Furthermore, from their experience of
many previous governments (mainly coalitions),
the manifestos promised by the parties were never
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implemented and, thus, young people are extre-
mely sceptical about the policies announced in
the campaigns.
Further, respondents with a great deal of po-
litical knowledge commented that the Thai elec-
torate, in general, made its voting decision by
judging the party leader, not its brand or ideolo-
gy. Since Thaksin Shinawatra was no longer lea-
der of the TRT, the respondents speculated that
the TRT would not win by a landslide, as it had
in the previous two elections. They said that the
public voted for Thaksin Shinawatra, not for his
populist policies. Some respondents speculated
that, if Thaksin Shinawatra formed a new party
with a new manifesto, TRT voters would vote for
that new party and new policies. Previously, TRT
voters casted their ballots for the TRT because of
its leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, and therefore,
their trust in him would be transferred to his
new party or anyone he supports.
The 2007 general election confirmed this.
The PPP, a reincarnation of the disbanded TRT,
won the election with 223 seats out of 480
5
. The
election results suggest two interpretations, the
first of which implies that the landslide victories
of the TRT in 2001 and 2005 were mainly attri-
buted to Thaksin Shinawatra. He was one of the
main reasons why people cast their votes for the
TRT. People trusted him to run the country be-
cause of his personal characteristics. The other
related interpretation is that the victory of the
PPP was due to the strong influence of Thaksin
Shinawatras name. Samak Sundaravej, the then
party leader, positioned himself as Thaksin
Shinawatras proxy and, since he inherited Thak-
5 Although the PPP did not win as decisively as TRT did in 2001
and 2005, it must be accepted that the victory of the PPP was rather
impressive by Thai political standards, especially in the context of the
2006 military coup and subsequent ocial attempts to undermine
the party.
sin Shinawatras support, he received the support
of TRT loyalists. This suggests the influence of
the leader, Thaksin rather than Samak, on the
election outcomes and, again, it seems that the
party leader matters.
4. If the person I like does not compete, I will
leave my decision open
The party leader also matters amongst undecided
voters, in that if they do not see their preferred
candidate competing in the election, they do not
make an electoral choice. The study illustrates
that the majority of those who believe that Gen
Surayudh Chulanont
6
, or Purachai Piumsom-
bun
7
, was the most suitable candidate for the
position of PM, had not made their electoral de-
cision. This suggests that the party leader is an
important figure, who can determine peoples
voting preferences. Since some respondents pre-
ferred these two leaders who are not members of
any party, the majority of them decided not to
vote for any party. They adopted a ‘wait-and-see’
strategy and claimed they would make up their
minds closer to the election date. As floating vo-
ters, they are potentially influenced by short-
term factors, such as campaigns, and thus, the
party’s election campaign would play a pivotal
role in convincing these late deciders to cast
their ballots for the party.
On the other hand, if these two politicians
announce their candidacy, these late deciders
may possibly vote for their parties. This suggests
that the party brand is less significant, and that
the party does not matter, but the leader does.
6 The interim Prime Minister after the 2006 Coup
7 The Ex-TRT party member and the most popular person among
Bangkok voters, without taking Thaksin Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjaji-
va into account, according to ABAC Poll (ABAC Poll Research Center
2006)
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Do Political Leaders Matter? The Case of Young People and Thai Politics (Págs. 8 a 27 )
They can either join the existing parties or set up
their own, which is not difficult to do. It can be
observed from Thai political history, that most of
the parties were not founded on the basis of their
ideology, but to support a strong individual poli-
tician. With their positive personal qualities,
they may possibly obtain votes from other late
deciders who are uncertain about their choice of
leader, as well as those of the young people who
prefer them. As mentioned earlier, these late de-
ciders can be convinced by the campaigns and
short-term factors, such as the party leader.
5. Combined eect of party leader, party
brand, and issues
The findings illustrate that votes for the TRT
were collectively influenced by the party brand,
the issues, and leader’s personal qualities. Young
people would vote for the TRT because it was
the best and only party to tackle their issues,
which were closely related to the party’s manifesto
on the economy. However, they voted for the
TRT because they trusted Thaksin Shinawatra
to handle their concerns, and it was the leader,
Thaksin Shinawatra, and not Chaturon Chaisang
8
,
who also influenced their choice. They trusted
Thaksin Shinawatra because of his perceived
qualities or image, such as his decisiveness
and ability to get things done, as well as the
fact that he was visionary and well-informed.
Hence, the traits of the leader influence the vo-
ting intentions by considering the issues. Thak-
sin Shinawatra’s perceived image assured voters
of his performance in terms of the issues which
concerned them.
The TRT’s intensive election campaigns had
built a strong party and leader brand, and mani-
festo, which voters linked together and viewed
8 The acting leader of the TRT in 2006
as one, for example economic reform, the TRT,
and Thaksin Shinawatra. Although some voters
may vote for the TRT because of the party’s ma-
nifesto, it may not be easy to distinguish the
effect of the issues on voters without taking into
consideration the influence of the party leader.
People voted for the TRT on economic issues,
since they believed that Thaksin Shinawatra
could tackle these with TRT policies. The leader,
the party and the issues are integrated, due to
the practices of modern day election campaigns,
and it is becoming more and more difficult to
differentiate the influence of a party’s brand from
that of its leader.
6. Party aliation: a less predictable factor
It is true that the majority of young people who
identified with the TRT and the Democrat party
intended to vote for their parties. However, the
study reveals a significant number of respon-
dents who had attached themselves to those par-
ties had not yet made their voting decisions. In
the case of TRT and Democrat voters, this can be
explained by the perception of the party leaders,
since the majority of respondents who aligned
themselves with the TRT were in doubt as to
whether Chaturon Chaisang, the acting leader,
possessed all seven of the most important traits
of their ideal leader. Furthermore, they mistrus-
ted the ex-leader, Thaksin Shinawatra, who
could work behind the scenes and control the
party. The negative personal qualities of both im-
portant figures in the TRT deterred voters from
casting their ballots for that party.
Similarly, young people who were affiliated
with the Democrats did not definitely cast their
votes for the party, partly because of their opi-
nion of Abhisit Vejjajiva. The majority of the res-
pondents in this group were uncertain that
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Abhisit Vejjajiva was honest, decisive, able to get
things done, or could be trusted to run the
country four out of seven important traits of an
ideal leader. The doubts expressed about this
leader, therefore, contribute to the reluctance of
the respondents in this group to vote for his party.
These two cases support the contention that
the traits, or perceived images, of the leader can
influence young people’s voting intentions. They
did not make their voting decision for the party
with which they aligned themselves, partially
because they either mistrusted, or were uncertain
of, the party leader’s ability to run the country
from their evaluation of his perceived qualities.
All of these six points demonstrate conclusively
that a party leader, or his perceived image,
matters and can influence how young people
vote. It serves as a shortcut or peripheral cue for
cognitive misers when they make their electoral
decisions. Nonetheless, many critics (for exam-
ple Franklin 2004) contend that the focus on the
party leader encourages voters to engage with
the image rather than the substance of politics.
Arguably, the positive perceptions or feelings
towards a party leader will establish a connec-
tion between voters and the party (Richards
2004, 2007). This connection can motivate the
electorate to consider other information, such as
manifestos, or to look for more information
about the particular party before making their
voting decision. Apart from being a simple cue,
a party leader can build up interest and involve-
ment in the party, and prompt young people to
scrutinise other political messages from the par-
ty. One clear example is the 2008 presidential
campaign of Barack Obama. With his charisma,
personality, compelling background, and hyper-
media communication strategy, particularly the
use of an interactive online mode, he was able to
recruit young and first-time voters to engage in
politics and his campaign. This is the power of
the simple cues which act as tools for mobilisa-
tion. Those heuristic cues can further motivate
young people, or the electorate, to spend more
time researching information, or engaging in
cognitive thinking, when they make their electo-
ral decision.
Conclusion
Generally, young people are politically inactive;
they are likely to have limited knowledge and
interest in politics. Further, they may not spend
time and effort researching party manifestos as
they are ‘cognitive misers’. However, they are
forced to make electoral choices since voting is
compulsory in Thailand. Therefore, they consi-
der a party leader when making their electoral
choices. In this case, a party leader directly in-
fluences young peoples electoral choices. On
the contrary, young people with a high level of
political knowledge and interest consider the
parties’ policies when they cast their votes. These
findings confirm the postulation of ELM (Petty
and Cacioppo 1981, 1986) on both the central
and peripheral route processes.
Nonetheless, the study demonstrates some
disagreement with the ELM theory. A large
number of young people with a low level of both
political knowledge and interest considered the
party’s manifesto when making their electoral
choices. It can be argued that the emotional
attachment with the ex-party leader can encourage
voters to think about the party and policies the
leader represents. Therefore, these young people
go through a central route cognitive process.
Heuristic cues, such as a party leader, can bring
about central processing among less able and
motivated voters, producing a more permanent
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Do Political Leaders Matter? The Case of Young People and Thai Politics (Págs. 8 a 27 )
change in attitudes. In this case, a party leader
indirectly exerts influence on young people’s
voting choices.
Apart from the role of image in electoral choi-
ces, the research reveals the role of issues (poli-
cies) in some young voters’ decisions. However,
the impact of issues on votes cannot be singled
out from other factors. The practice of postmo-
dern election campaigns makes it more difficult
for the electorate to differentiate between the
party from its leader (Mair et al. 2004). The is-
sues, party brand and leader are interrelated,
especially in the case of the TRT. The party esta-
blished a strong leader (Thaksin Shinawatra)
and party brand, and its famous populist poli-
cies from the intense practice of political marke-
ting, as well as well-planned and well-executed
campaigns to create a favourable image of the
party and its leader. It is therefore difficult for
young voters to distinguish the effect of each fac-
tor on their vote. They vote for the TRT on the
basis that they feel that the party, and Thaksin
Shinawatra, could best handle their concerns,
especially economic-related issues. The partys
populist policies were widely known and related
to the TRT brand. Further, Thaksin Shinawatra
was perceived as a strong and competent leader,
who could put all of the policies into action.
Therefore, the TRT votes can be attributed to the
combined effect of these three factors. Thus, the
party leader does not only directly influence vo-
tes, but also indirectly influences how voters
perceive the party and its policies.
Implications
1. Political image management
As the leader matters, and politics become the
‘politics of trust’ orperception politics’, it is cer-
tain that political image management is crucial.
It may not be possible to find a leader or candi-
date who possesses all of the qualities required
by young voters. However, as Machiavelli says in
The Prince: “…it is unnecessary for a prince to
have all the good qualities I have enumerated,
but it is very necessary to appear to have them…”
(Marriott 1998, Chapter 18). This advice im-
plies the manipulation of a candidate’s image, or
the creation of an impression among the voters.
It must be accepted that impression can deter-
mine electoral choice (McGraw 2003). Similar
to the commercial world, political image can be
easily manipulated, especially in terms of physi-
cal appearance such as dress code. However, it is
more difficult to manipulate the true identity of
a leader or candidate. If the manipulation moves
too far from the reality, the leader’s reputation
can be easily destroyed once the electorate learns
that those images are created or are false. For
example, Thaksin Shinawatra projected himself
as the perfect candidate to rescue the country
from the 1997 financial crisis. The campaign
promoted him as a wealthy person who was not
corrupt, unlike career politicians. However, in
the end, his greed his true identity destroyed
him and his career.
With the trend of practising a Market-orien-
ted approach to politics in Thailand, the leader
or candidate can be positioned, or repositioned,
to match the electorate’s demands. However, as
contended by De Landtsheer and associates
(2008), if the leader cannot deliver, or the voters’
demands are not met, the electorate will change
brand at the next election. The detachment of
voters from Thaksin Shinawatra and the TRT
party clearly illustrates this point.
Therefore, if a political party manipulates vo-
ters by creating a false impression of the leader
or candidate, the party has to bear the risk of
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being rejected when the votersnd out. This is a
basic marketing rule. To retain the leader’s popu-
larity and acceptance among voters, the image,
or impression, management has to be done
based upon the leaders own identity, not merely
a transformation to match the voters’ require-
ments.
Political image management, and an unders-
tanding of voters’ needs, are the tools to help a
party leader to project the right qualities to the
right segments. They further help to engage vo-
ters with politics, resulting in the strength of de-
mocracy and citizen participation (De Landts-
heer and associates 2008).
2. Integrated brand communications
Although the findings suggest the importance of
a party leader on young people’s voting deci-
sions, they do not suggest that a political party
can put less effort into communicating their ma-
nifestos to voters. Some young people, especially
those with a high degree of political knowledge
and interest, partly consider a partys manifestos
when making their electoral decisions. However,
the party leader will be the key factor to differen-
tiate one party from others. Voters will vote for a
party whose leader they can trust or rely on, if
they do not see the differences in the manifestos
offered to them. Potentially, political parties will
offer similar manifestos in the next election, and
therefore, the campaigns can be a battle to gain
trust in a party leader to run the country. As
Thompson (2000) suggests, people look to the
credibility and trustworthiness of political lea-
ders, and to their character, as a means of asses-
sing their suitability or otherwise for office. A
strong and reliable leader will be an asset in cam-
paigns. However, the party brand and policies
can complement the success of the leader’s ima-
ge. To help build up a strong party brand as a
whole, it is necessary for the political party to
integrate all three elements - leader, policies,
party brand - and consistently communicate
them to the electorate. Thaksin Shinawatra and
the TRT are clear evidence of successfully inte-
grating all three factors into one strong brand
which helped to strengthen the image of Thak-
sin Shinawatra and the TRT to bring about the
success of his party in the 2001 and 2005 gene-
ral elections.
3. Importance of campaigns to late deciders
and swing (oating) voters
Similar to youth around the globe, the findings
reveal a trend of de-aligned voters and late deci-
sion makers among young Thai people, and this
trend can present a good opportunity for a poli-
tical party. Since young people generally do not
have a high degree of political knowledge and
interest, or any strong political standpoint, they
need convincing by campaigns in order to make
their voting decisions. This emphasises the sig-
nificance of the campaigns in influencing swing
or floating voters, as discussed by various scho-
lars (for example Crewe 1984, Norris 1997).
Campaigns, together with the image or traits of a
party leader can, therefore, play a vital role in
their electoral choices. Furthermore, the late de-
ciders leave themselves open to new options, so
that new faces with new offers have the chance
of gaining votes from undecided voters who are
bored or have lost interest in the existing op-
tions.
In summary, it is necessary for a political par-
ty to listen to young people’s demands about
what they look for in both content (such as poli-
cies, issues) and style (such as qualities of a lea-
der). In terms of style, market intelligence will
help the party to present and project its leader to
meet the votersrequirements by managing his
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Do Political Leaders Matter? The Case of Young People and Thai Politics (Págs. 8 a 27 )
or her political image or impression. It is antici-
pated that strong emotional attachment with a
party leader, a party and its issues, created by
means of integrated brand communication, can
encourage voters to move from peripheral to
central route processing. The party leader, or his
personality, will not only be a simple cue to guide
voters’ decisions, but the inspiration or moti-
vation for voters to read or listen to more about
the leader, his party and policies, bringing about
a more rational and thoughtful voting decision
at a later date.
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