Thailand's vote is viewed as a contest between junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – who wants to stay on as the elected leader – and a "democratic front" of anti-junta parties.
Thailand's anti-junta Pheu Thai party said Monday it will try to form a government despite losing the popular vote to a military-backed party in the first election since a 2014 coup, highlighting the nation's deep political polarisation.
Separately, the Election Commission said it will announce the results of 350 constituency seats later on Monday but full vote counts, which are needed to determine the allocation of 150 other seats in the House of Representatives, won't be available until Friday.
Pheu Thai leader Sudarat Keyurapha said it won the most constituency seats in Sunday's election and will try to form a government with similar-minded parties.
But the party faces an uphill battle because selection of the next prime minister will be decided by the 500-member lower house as well as a 250-member junta-appointed Senate.
Unofficial results show the military-backed Palang Pracharat party won the popular vote, which along with the appointed Senate, puts junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in a relatively strong position to stay in office and cobble together a coalition government.
TRT World's Philip Owira reports.
Charges of cheating
Two major political parties raised doubts on Monday about the accuracy of the election results.
One party said it was considering a legal challenge over what it said were poll irregularities and, amid popular dismay over the partial results, the number of signatures on an online petition to impeach the Election Commission leapt by more than 300,000 over a few hours to more than half a million.
"There are irregularities in this election that we're not comfortable with. These affect the nation's credibility and people's trust," said Sudarat Keyuraphan, candidate for prime minister of the Pheu Thai Party.
"We've voiced our concerns before for vote-buying, abuse of power, and cheating. All three have manifested. We will fight back through legal means," she told a news conference.
She said her party, which is linked to the military's nemesis, self-exiled former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, would join forces with other anti-junta parties to form a government.
“There were reports of vote buying, there were reports of irregularities in vote count and tabulation,”said Human Rights Watch ahead of the results.
Pro-army party leads in election
With 93 percent of votes counted late Sunday, the Palang Pracharat party was first with nearly 7.6 million votes, according to the Election Commission. Its vote total falls short of the numbers needed for an outright majority in parliament. Pheu Thai, which was the governing party ousted by the coup, was next with 7.1 million votes.
The country likely faces several weeks of bargaining among political parties before a potentially unstable coalition government is formed in May or June. Thais voted for a 500-member parliament, which along with a 250-member junta-appointed Senate will decide the next prime minister.
A new party, Future Forward, which was anti-junta and popular with young voters, scooped up 5.2 million votes. But voters deserted the Democrat Party, the country's oldest political party, in its Bangkok and southern strongholds. Its leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, resigned.
Another party, Phumjai Thai, which experts say could support the junta, picked up 3.2 million votes.
"It looks unlikely that a sizeable enough anti-junta majority will form in the House to put pressure on the military to back away," said Peter Mumford, an analyst at Eurasia Group, which advises international companies on political risks.
That combined with the role of junta-appointed senators in helping to pick the next prime minister means Prayuth "remains in pole position for now," he said in a post-election analysis.
"There will be uncertainty created by post-election coalition negotiations, potential recounts, disqualifications and constituency race reruns, and concerns over the legitimacy of the election," Mumford said.
About 51 million Thais are eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule have urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth's plans.
The most prominent party of a "democratic front" of anti-junta parties front is Pheu Thai, led by loyalists to exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
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 every election since 2001.
Political parties and their main leaders held their final major rallies on Friday evening in Bangkok.
Sudarat Keyuraphan, leader of the Pheu Thai, said it would fight to overcome constitutional hurdles erected against it by Prayuth's regime.
"In 2014, they took power with the barrel of a gun, by a coup," she said. "In 2019, they are trying to take away the people's power again through crooked regulations under the constitution."
Concerns about a slowing economy under Prayuth's rule have been an issue in the campaign. Sudarat told the crowd, "Every time we come back, the economy improves, right?"
Prayuth, dressed in a white button-down shirt with rolled-up sleeves, pumped his fist into the air as he took the stage at a rally for the military-backed Palang Pracharath party.
"I will protect this country for our future generations," he said. "Who will join me?"
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 a major selling point for Prayuth.
A third faction, led by the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party, argues it can form a government that is neutral.
Its leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told voters at a rally they did not have to choose between "dictatorship" and "corruption", referring respectively to Prayuth and Thaksin, who fled to avoid corruption charges in 2008.
"Time's up for corruption," said Abhisit, who could hold the key to power after what is expected to be an inconclusive poll that triggers intense horse-trading among parties to form a government.
Thailand's king made an unexpected call for "security" and "happiness" on the eve of the elections on Saturday, but made no mention of a poll critics say has been engineered to keep the military in power.
King Maha Vajiralongkorn did not refer to any of the sides in Sunday's election. However, his message less than 12 hours before voting booths were to open was a startling departure from the approach of his late father, who in his latter years kept a distance between the monarchy and politics.
"The king is concerned about the country's security and the feelings and happiness of the people, so the king wants to send his moral support and a reminder for all to use it to bring about unity, security of the country and happiness of the people," said a palace statement late on Saturday.
The elder sister of the king, Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, shocked the country last month by accepting a Thaksin-linked party's nomination for prime minister. She was quickly disqualified by the election commission and the party was later banned from the race for breaking a taboo on involving the monarchy in politics.
The late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October 2016 after a seven-decade reign, stayed aloof from politics during the last decade of his life when Thailand was rocked by clashes between Bangkok-centred elites and more rural-based populists.
The palace said the king recalled comments made in 1969 by his father about the need "to promote good people to govern the country and to prevent bad people from power and creating chaos".
Limited access to monitors
Earlier on Saturday, an international observer group said it would face limitations in judging the election, partly because it was granted accreditation too late to get all its monitors into Thailand.
The Bangkok-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), which sought accreditation in November, had hoped to deploy 80 observers for an electorate of 51.4 million people.
But permission to monitor the poll only came on March 14, so less than half that number will be on the ground.
Rights groups had called on the military government to allow foreign observers to monitor the election, but only ANFREL was given permission.
"As international observers, we have our own limitations. We can't challenge the law of the country," ANFREL Secretary-General Rohana Nishanta Hettiarachchie, who is also head of the Thai monitoring mission, said of the visa problems.
"The legal framework itself is not supporting the free and fair elections."
Asked to respond, a government spokesman and a foreign ministry spokeswoman referred Reuters to the election commission, which was not available for comment.
How it works
More than 93,200 polling stations in 77 provinces opened at 0100 GMT (8 am local) on Sunday.
The makeup of the 500-seat House of Representatives is what will be decided on Sunday, but not all seats are directly elected.
Under the new constitution, the House of Representatives has 350 “constituency seats”, to which voters on Sunday will directly elect a candidate and, by default, their preferred party.
The 250-seat upper house Senate is entirely appointed by the ruling junta. Under the previous constitution, the Senate was only partially appointed.
The Senate will for the first time since 1978 vote along with the lower house, the 500-seat House of Representatives, to choose the new prime minister and government.
Previously, only members of the lower house voted for prime minister.
The magic number of seats parties or alliances need to secure to form a government is 376 – 50 percent plus one of the total number in the two houses of parliament.
With the military choosing all Senate members, including seats reserved for six heads of different armed forces branches, pro-military parties would likely need to win only 126 seats in the House of Representatives to win a majority in a combined vote.
Anti-junta parties, on the other hand, which can’t count on any Senate votes, would need to win 376 seats lower house seats to gain a majority.