By Panu Wongcha-um and Patpicha Tanakasempipat
Partial results from Sunday’s general election in Thailand showed a pro-military party slightly ahead of the populist party leading a “democratic front”, an unexpected outcome from a poll that had long been delayed after a 2014 army coup.
With 89 percent of overall votes counted, the Election Commission reported the pro-military party Palang Pracharat, which is seeking to keep junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha in power, was leading with 7.0 million votes.
Close behind with 6.6 million was the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.
The partial result did not say how many of the lower house of parliament constituencies its results reflected.
Thailand has been under direct military rule for nearly five years since then-army chief Prayuth overthrew an elected government linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was thrown out by the army in 2006.
Turnout was expected to be about 80 percent of the 51.2 million eligible voters, the Election Commission said about an hour before the polls closed at 5 p.m. (1000 GMT).
The election will determine the make-up of the 500-seat parliament’s House of Representatives. The lower house and the upper house, the Senate – which is appointed entirely by the ruling junta – will together select the next prime minister.
Critics have said a new, junta-written electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent the Thaksin-linked Pheu Thai Party from returning to power.
Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election since 2001, but the past 15 years have seen crippling street protests both by his opponents and supporters that destabilised governments and hamstrung business.
Prayuth is hoping to stay on as prime minister with the backing of a pro-military party that campaigned on maintaining order and upholding traditional values of loyalty and devotion to the monarch.
On the eve of the vote, King Maha Vajiralongkorn made an unexpected and cryptic statement, recalling a comment made by his late father in 1969 on the need to put “good people” in power and to prevent “bad people from … creating chaos”.
Although he did not refer to any of the sides in the race, the king’s message was a departure from the approach of his late father, who died in 2016. The former king, in his latter years, usually kept a distance between the monarchy and politics
King Vajiralongkorn also weighed in on electoral affairs last month followed a startling turn of events when a pro-Thaksin party nominated Princess Ubolratana, the king’s sister, as its prime ministerial candidate.
Within hours, the king issued a statement saying her candidacy was “inappropriate” and she was quickly disqualified.
“What happened last month … and then the announcement last night shows that, in contrast to the former reign, that the monarchy is actively interested in monitoring what’s going on and it feels that it has some stake in the future direction of the country,” said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based independent scholar.
Pro-Thaksin parties are expected to win the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives. However, the new system appears designed to prevent them from forming a government because it includes the junta-appointed 250-seat Senate in the vote for prime minister.
The provision means Prayuth’s Palang Pracharat Party and allies have to win only 126 seats in the House, while Pheu Thai and its potential “democratic front” partners would need 376.
Two officially non-aligned parties could be decisive in whether pro-military or “democratic front” factions make up the next government.
Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the anti-Thaksin Democrats, has portrayed himself as a third way between the “dictatorship” of keeping Prayuth and a return to what critics see as the corruption of pro-Thaksin governments.
Colourful longtime politician Anutin Charnvirakul could also emerge as a compromise leader in case of deadlock. His Bhumjaithai Party placed third in the last election and has grabbed attention this time for populist promises such as the legalisation of recreational marijuana and a four-day work week.