Royalist junta party leads in Thailand’s 1st election since 2014 coup

BANGKOK • Thais began the nail-biting wait late yesterday to see whether the ruling junta will return to power as a civilian government, or if pro-democracy parties can triumph against the odds, as polls closed in the country’s first general election since a 2014 coup.

The Election Commission estimated turnout at 80% as voters flocked to schoolyards, temples and government offices across the nation, their enthusiasm fired by years of denied democracy.

At press time, Thai junta party took an unexpected lead with 90% of votes counted, according to the commission.

Yesterday’s crunch vote was foreshadowed by a cryptic last-minute warning from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to support “good” leaders to prevent “chaos”. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and the palace is nominally above politics. But the institution retains unassailable powers and is insulated from criticism by a harsh royal defamation law.

The election pits a royalist junta and its allies against the election-winning machine of billionaire ex-Prime Minister (ex-PM) Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup, and an unpredictable wave of millions of first-time voters.

The kingdom remains bitterly divided despite the junta’s pledge to rescue it from a decade-long treadmill of protests and coups.

“I am anxious,” said Wipa Ployngam, 53, outside the Bangkok headquarters of the upstart, anti-junta Future Forward party, hoping a pro-democracy coalition will nudge its way to victory. “I’ll stay here all night until everything becomes clear.”

Politicians across the spectrum fear a stalemate under election rules, written by the junta, which limit the chances of any single party emerging with a comfortable parliamentary majority. Experts said unstable coalitions could swiftly collapse, dunking the kingdom back into political crisis.

There are 51 million eligible voters and more than seven million first-timers aged 18-25. Preliminary results were expected within a few hours of the polls closing at 5pm yesterday, with exit polls giving an unreliable steer on the outcome.

The Election Commission said the full count could take days or weeks.

The junta party, which is proposing army-chief-turned PM Prayut Chan-o-cha (picture) for civilian PM after the polls, is under intense pressure to avoid humiliation in what is effectively a referendum on its popularity. Prayut toppled the civilian government of Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck in 2014. — AFP