(BANGKOK) — The leader of the party ousted in a coup five years ago insisted Sunday that the political grouping with the most votes in Thailand’s election should form a government, as unofficial results showed her party leading a military-backed rival.
Voting stations closed at 5 p.m. and meaningful results were expected within several hours. The formation of a new government, likely to be unstable and short-lived, could take weeks of haggling.
In addition to early vote counts, an opinion survey taken in the days before the election and released after voting closed indicated that the ousted party, Pheu Thai, allied with Thailand’s exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, would win the most parliamentary seats but not enough to govern alone.
The military-backed Palang Pracharat party, meanwhile, would win the second-highest number of seats, according to the Suan Dusit survey of nearly 80,000 voters.
“I insist that the party that receives the most votes has the right to form the government first,” Pheu Thai leader Sudarat Keyuraphan said a news conference after voting closed.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the blunt-speaking army chief who led the 2014 coup, is hoping to extend his hold on power after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.
About 51 million Thais were eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth’s plans.
The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of Thaksin, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand’s politics with a populist political revolution.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have won every election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the government that was ousted in 2014, also fled the country after what supporters said was a politically motivated corruption prosecution.
After the coup, political party gatherings were banned and pro-democracy activists and other dissenters were regularly arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. Just days before Sunday’s election, Pheu Thai said the houses of party officials and its campaign canvassers in some provinces were searched by military personnel in an act of intimidation.
Thais were voting for a 500-seat parliament that along with a 250-member junta-appointed Senate will decide the next prime minister. That setup means a military-backed figure such as Prayuth could become leader even while lacking a majority in parliament.
“I hope that the 250 senators who are appointed by the NCPO (junta) will respect the will of the people,” said Sudarat.
Thailand’s powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a statement on the eve of the election that said the role of leaders is to stop “bad people” from gaining power and causing chaos. It was also broadcast on Thai television stations minutes before voting started.
Invoking a speech by his father, the previous Thai king who died in 2016 after reigning for seven decades, Vajiralongkorn said not all citizens can be transformed into good people so leaders must be given support in ruling to create a peaceful nation.
He urged government officials, soldiers and civil servants to look after national security.
It was the monarch’s second notable intervention in politics recently. Last month, he demanded his sister Princess Ubolratana Mahidol withdraw as a prime ministerial candidate for a small Thaksin-allied party within 24 hours of her announcement.
When it seized power in 2014, the military said it was to end political unrest that had periodically turned violent and disrupted daily life and the economy. The claim has been one of the few selling points for the gruff Prayuth, who according to critics has overseen a period of growing inequality and economic hardship in Thailand.
“I want things to improve,” Narate Wongthong said after voting. “We had too many conflicts in the past and I want to see lots of people come out and vote.”