Thailand's military-backed party takes lead in 1st election since 2014 coup

A military-backed party has taken the lead in Thailand's first election since a 2014 coup, preliminary results showed Sunday, suggesting junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha could stay in power.

The Election Commission chairman says unofficial results will be announced on Monday

A Thai voter with a ballot paper in her hand, poses at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, on Sunday, during the nation's first general election since the military seized power in a 2014 coup. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press)

Partial results from Sunday's election in Thailand showed a pro-military party slightly ahead of the populist party leading a "democratic front," an unexpected and, for many, stunning outcome from the country's first poll since a 2014 army coup.

With 93 per cent 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 7.59 million votes.

Trailing with 7.12 million votes was Pheu Thai, a party linked to exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose loyalists have won every election since 2001.

The numbers were for the popular vote, but these did not reflect parliamentary constituency seats that would ultimately be won. Pheu Thai could still win the lion's share of these because of its concentrated popularity in the north and northeast of the country.

Nevertheless, there was dismay among many voters who had hoped that the poll would loosen the grip on power that traditional elites and the military have held in a country that has one of the highest measures of inequality in the world.

Supporters of Pheu Thai party cheer while watching television election results at party headquarters in Bangkok on Sunday. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)

At Pheu Thai's headquarters in Bangkok, the mood fluctuated from cheerful to quiet disbelief.

"I didn't think this is likely. I don't think this is what the people wanted," said Pheu Thai supporter Polnotcha Chakphet.

A #PrayforThailand hashtag started trending on Twitter as the results trickled out, and some people tweeted that they would leave the country if Prayuth was returned to power to remain prime minister.

The Election Commission chairman said unofficial results would be announced on Monday afternoon. The commission said turnout was 66 per cent, based on 90 per cent of the vote counted.

Royal role

The royal family, which wields great influence and commands the devotion of millions of Thais, played a part in the election though how far it influenced the outcome was unclear.

On the eve of the vote, King Maha Vajiralongkorn made an unexpected and cryptic statement, recalling a comment made by his father in 1969 on the need to put "good people" in power and to prevent "bad people from … creating chaos."

His message was a departure from the approach of his late father, who died in 2016. In his latter years, the former king usually kept a distance between the monarchy and politics.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, centre, speaks to journalists after casting his vote at a polling station in Bangkok. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press)

Although the king did not refer to any of the sides in the election race, there was speculation on social media that it was a coded reference to main political factions — broadly the middle class and urban establishment, who identify with the monarchy and the military, and their pro-Thaksin opponents.

King Vajiralongkorn also weighed in on electoral affairs last month after 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 disqualified.

Still, the connection between the princess and Thaksin persisted in voters' minds, particularly after they were seen hugging on Friday at the wedding of his daughter in Hong Kong.

"We had a lot of drama in the last hours before the election," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University. "Thaksin overplayed with a royal involvement and that was countered by his opponent."

Deck stacked for military

Thailand has been racked for the past 15 years by crippling street protests both by Thaksin's opponents and supporters that destabilized governments and hamstrung business.

The country has been under direct military rule for nearly five years since then-army chief Prayuth overthrew an elected government linked to populist Thaksin, who himself was thrown out by the army in 2006.

The election will determine the makeup of parliament's 500-seat 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.

Democrat Party Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva gestures as he arrives at a polling station to cast his ballot in Bangkok. (Wason Wanichakorn/Associated Press)

Critics have said a new, junta-devised electoral system gives a built-in advantage to pro-military parties and appears designed to prevent Pheu Thai from returning to power.

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.

The non-aligned Democrat Party, which many had thought could hold the balance of power between pro-military and "democratic front" factions, appeared to have been deserted by many voters.

Its leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, announced his resignation within five hours of the polls closing.